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Isabella: Queen without a Conscience

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by Rachel Bard 

I admit I am a sucker for historical novels, especially those set in the Middle Ages. Isabella of Angoulême is not the best known of England’s queen consorts, but neither is she the least colourful. She married King John when he was thirty-three years old and she was about fourteen, effectively growing from adolescence to adulthood in the course of their married life. She had five children by John, and another nine by her second husband Hugh de Lusignan. To have survived John was in itself no mean feat, if the plot of this novel is anything to go by. It suggests a strength of character that was not commonplace in women of the time, even those of royal birth.

As historical novels go, this one is not exactly in the highbrow category. Forget your Sharon Penmans and your Dorothy Dunnetts, we are in quite different territory here. Whilst it is clear that substantial research has been carried out, the style of writing is anachronistic and the story is told with an eye to sensationalism rather than historical exactitude. This is not a condemnation, merely an observation. There is no reason why readers should not come to an interest in history through the reading of popular fiction, as generations of Jean Plaidy readers can testify. Rachel Bard has already written a novel about Berengaria of Navarre (who appears as a character in this book too) and apparently has plans to follow up with one on a more obscure medieval queen, Joanna of Sicily.

In this novel, the author’s enthusiasm for her chosen subject is clear from the outset. I wondered whether she was influenced by other fictional portrayals of Queen Isabella and to what extent she was concerned with breaking new ground. You would not choose Isabella as your heroine out of ignorance, but neither would you choose her for her pivotal role in history. Ms Bard sees Isabella as an essentially modern woman, one who has chosen her own way in life (insofar as this was ever an option for a medieval princess) and cares little for the opinions of other people. Serious students of history will know that this is not how it was. People of the 13th century had many of the traits of those of the 21st century, but they carried a great deal of mental baggage, in the form of ideas about religion, politics and gender roles, which would seem very alien to us today.

Isabella stands out chiefly because of her two notable marriages, and there is an intriguing background story here, as she had been betrothed to Hugh of Lusignan before her marriage to John; depending which source you believe, her original fiancé was either the same man as her second husband, or his father. Ms Bard chooses the father-son relationship and sensibly uses the flashback technique for her narrative, allowing us to look at Isabella’s life in context and in full knowledge of her eventual fate, rather than trying to keep the ending of the story a secret. Instead of seeing it all through Isabella’s eyes, however, we shift from one character’s point of view to another, so that we have the opportunity to see her as others do. This strategy is intended to help us make up our own minds about her.

For all this, I found it difficult to relate to Isabella as portrayed here. She comes across as a kind of medieval Tracy Barlow, a man-eater with a voracious appetite for scandal and an ambition surpassed only by her sex drive, with the seeds of her personality already sown in her pre-pubescent years. She is depicted as a vain, spoiled child who grows into a demanding woman. In general, there is little in-depth characterisation. King John himself, even in the passages narrated from his own point of view, is a caricature, resembling the stereotypical "Robin Hood" villain.

isabella.jpg

ISBN 149209212 4
Trafford, 2006
355pp, paperback
Retail price $14.95

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In reviews of other historical novels, I’ve often referred to what I call "let’s give a history lesson syndrome". Isabella: Queen without a Conscience deals with a period that is unfamiliar to most readers and where complex family relationships and political alliances are crucial to the action. For this reason, I forgive the long conversation in a later chapter, where Hugh recounts to Isabella the details of his military campaign as though she would not already have known the outcome of most of the individual battles from other sources. I would add that I learned a lot about the period from this book, particularly the French side of the story, and I’m grateful to the author for her efforts to bring it to life. I saw it through to the end, chiefly because I wondered how she would explain the circumstances of Isabella’s marriages and later life. At the same time, I was disappointed at the superficial level on which the story is told, the surface treatment of both the historical background and the characters. I will read the next of Rachel Bard’s works in the hope of something more satisfying.

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher