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.
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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.
Review by Deborah Fisher