The Secret Eleanor
by Cecelia Holland
The Secret Eleanor revolves around one of the most extraordinary episodes in Eleanor of Aquitaine's extraordinary life. In 1151, while she was unhappily married to King Louis VII of France, another extraordinary person, eighteen-year-old Henry of Anjou, came with his father on a diplomatic mission to Louis. Less than a year later, Eleanor finally succeeded in having her marriage annulled. Two months after that, she and Henry were wed - but only after Eleanor evaded two attempts, one by Henry's brother, to kidnap and marry her by force.
Telling details like the "loops of filthy cobweb hanging" in King Louis's hall "with banners and pennants too dusty to distinguish drooping on the walls," plunge readers into the setting and sharpen the characterization. Eleanor and Henry, two of the most potent personalities in history, need no glorification; instead, Holland makes them tangible. Eleanor is passionate, imperious, impatient, but when she makes a low, courtly bow to her husband, we see "the tender nape" at the back of her head. Henry is "not tall, but square-shouldered and barrel-chested," and "the clinking of his spurs sounded loud as bells."
As the title hints, Holland goes out on a limb to imagine what secrets might be buried under the historical record. These feature breathtaking risks, disguises, and the shrewd calculation that makes an intellectual feast of all Holland's work. One of the richest surprises in a novel full of them is Eleanor's mousy younger sister Petronilla, who comes into her own during Eleanor's year of challenge, magnificently stealing the story from her sister to become its central character. Almost as delicious is the tale of a fictional maid-in-waiting who falls in love with a troubadour and plays her own heroic part in the tale.
Readers who think they have read every definitive novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine will find they need to read one more. The Secret Eleanor is as daring as Eleanor herself without violating Holland's trademark spirit of historical authenticity. (2010; 361 pages, including an Afterword on the history behind the novel and an unusually interesting set of Discussion Questions for readers' groups)
More about The Secret Eleanor at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine:
Eleanor the Queen by Norah Lofts (1955; originally published as Queen in Waiting). More info
The Plantagenet Prelude by Jean Plaidy (1976), #1 in the Plantagenet series. More info
Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman (2002), #2 in the Eleanor of Aquitaine series. More info
Nonfiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine:
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England by Ralph V. Turner (2009), a scholarly biography of Eleanor. More info
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly (1950), a well-regarded biography of Eleanor, first published in 1950 but still readily available in more recent editions. More info
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours by Jean Markale (2007), about Eleanor's impact on culture through her sponsorship of literature based on the King Arthur legends. More info
At the Movies:
The Lion in Winter, the Academy Award-winning 1968 film starring Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor and Peter O'Toole as Henry. Highly recommended.
Eleanor of Aquitaine at WomenInWorldHistory.com
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