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.


Gata said...

This was one of the few Plaidy novels where I was slightly incredulous.

Daphne said...

Even though Penman's seemed a little battle heavy at times, I definately agree with you. The Passionate Enemies seemed like a bunch of historical facts (using that term loosely in the case of Stephen and Matilda's affair) just strung together with a bit of dialogue thrown in to call it a novel.