Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Passionate Enemies

As I mentioned, I've been reading The Passionate Enemies, which I finished a few days ago. It's about King Stephen and the Empress Matilda's battle for the throne.

This book will inevitably be compared to When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Penman, who covers considerably more ground and whose characters have more psychological depth. Plaidy, however, devotes more time to Henry I than Penman did, so her novel doesn't feel like Penman Lite, at least in the first half. I also thought that Plaidy did a good job of portraying Queen Matilda (Stephen's wife, as opposed to the Empress Matilda) as a formidable woman in her own right; she got sort of lost to me in the Penman novel, where the author seemed to prefer the strong, strident Empress to the strong, quiet Queen. The Empress, however, is portrayed by Plaidy as a shrill harpy with little common sense, so Empress admirers will undoubtedly prefer the more sympathetic portrait of her that Penman draws.

As I mentioned in my last post, in The Passionate Enemies, Plaidy accepts the notion, since discredited, that Stephen and the Empress Matilda were lovers. I don't know whether the notion was generally accepted when Plaidy was writing this novel or whether Plaidy simply thought it made for a better story, but I wish it had stayed in the shadowland of unutilized plotlines. Its effect was to make Stephen seem an utter fool who is guided by his nether regions instead of by his brain, as when he allows the Empress to proceed unhindered to Bristol simply because they've had a satisfying session in bed after being long parted. Even when he's taken prisoner by the Empress, Stephen still seems hopeful that she'll take him to her bed instead of to a dungeon. I'm no expert on this period of history, but I think the real-life Stephen was considerably more intelligent than he's portrayed here as being.

On the plus side, this novel does read quickly, and I did like the sympathetic portrait of Queen Matilda. All in all, though, in the battle of the P's, Penman prevails over Plaidy here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Star of Lancaster

Now that Victoria Victorious is off my plate, I'm back reading my Plaidys with a vengeance. Yesterday, I finished The Star of Lancaster.

I greatly preferred The Star of Lancaster to Victoria Victorious. For one thing, The Star of Lancaster is written in the third person, which avoids the somewhat blinkered perspective that bothered me in the Victoria novel. The other thing is that I simply found the events in The Star of Lancaster more gripping than those in Victoria Victorious. It seemed that more was at stake for the people involved.

The Star of Lancaster opens near the end of Richard II's reign (his story is told more fully in Passage to Pontefract) and ends with the death of Henry V, so it covers a lot of ground in a short space of time. Despite this, the novel didn't feel rushed to me. It seemed to cover all of the important events of the time, not in depth, to be sure, but not once-over-lightly either.

Though most of the events are seen from the viewpoint of Henry IV and Henry V, Plaidy also gives a great deal of attention to the women in their lives. She also takes us inside the French court.

The downside? Plaidy's prose here is, well, prosaic; chapters that should be gripping, like that dealing with Agincourt, are somewhat plodding. On the other hand, a while back I tried reading Rosemary Hawley Jarman's Crown in Candlelight, which covers many of the same events, and found I just couldn't get through it, between the visionary Welshwoman who kept popping up when I hoped she had gone away and the style, which could be called lyrical or purple, depending upon your point of view. Given a choice between them, I'd choose Plaidy, but it largely comes down to a matter of taste, mine being for uncluttered prose and Welshwomen without visions.

Next on my Plaidy list? I'm getting through The Passionate Enemies, about Stephen and Matilda, at a rapid pace. Plaidy's novel does revolve around the now-discredited notion that Stephen and Matilda were lovers, but as there's far more going on in the novel than their brief affair, it's proving to be quite interesting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Finally Finished Victoria Victorious

Yessir, it's been a long haul, but I finally closed Victoria Victorious yesterday. It's told in the first person by Queen Victoria and spans the period from her childhood until near the end of her life.

An unfortunate thing about this book is its alliterative but undescriptive title. It suggests that Victoria triumphs over adversity in some way, and at least as far as this book goes, she doesn't. She's not victorious or defeated; she simply lives a long, full life.

Plaidy succeeds in making Victoria a complex character. She's quite often stubborn, selfish, and insular, yet the reader rather likes her at the same time for her tenacity and for her spirit. These qualities are most apparent in the first half of the novel, where Victoria has to deal with her interfering mother and her beloved but priggish husband.

The focus of this novel is on Victoria's relationships with others, not the events of the day, and this insularity--heightened by the first person narration--was to me the great defect in this novel. Though major events--the Chartist movement, the Crimean War, and so forth--are mentioned, there's little sense of how they came about or what Victoria thought of them. We hear from Victoria which prime ministers she likes and doesn't like, and we're told which party they represent, but there's little real sense of the politics of the day. There's also very little sense of the enormous changes that were taking place; no one seems to have invited Victoria to the Industrial Revolution. When toward the end of the novel, someone mentions a telegraph, I was frankly surprised, for up to then there'd been no indication whatsoever of such technology. Indeed, I don't think there's even mention of the railways here.

All in all, this is a pleasant read if you're interested in Victoria's domestic life, but those who are looking for something deeper will likely be disappointed.

In other Plaidy news, check out Tanzanite's Book Covers blog, where she's posted some cheesy Plaidy paperback covers.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Plaidy Comes to the New World--Another Link

Here's a link to a review by Gray, of Romance Reviewed, of Jean Plaidy's novel about John Smith and Pocahontas, The King's Adventurer--an interesting change from the novels about English royalty we usually associate with Plaidy. Another one to search out (per Gray, it may also be known as This Was a Man).

Victoria Victorious, and A Couple of Links

I've been reading Victoria Victorious, so look for a review soon. It's fairly interesting, so far. Though I've read a lot of Victorian novels, I don't know that much about Victoria herself, other than the very basics. It was interesting to see her portrayed, in the early part of her reign at least, as a bit of a brat, and Albert as a prig.

While I solider on with Victoria (long reign, long novel), here's a couple of Plaidy links for your perusal. Gata has a nice appreciation of Plaidy here. And here's a review by Kirsten of In the Shadow of the Crown.