I have finally completed Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman. I have read other books written by her before: The Sunne in Splendour (unfinished) and Here Be Dragons. She writes about medieval Wales and England — right up my alley. Time and Chance is about the feud between Henry II and Thomas Becket, with a secondary plotline about Henry’s struggles with the Welsh during that time. The Sunne in Splendour is about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. Here Be Dragons is about the great Welsh leader Llewelyn the Great and King John. I give you this information so you have a frame of reference.
So what did I think? Not as good as Here Be Dragons. Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of my favorite historical figures. She married Louis VII (King of France), a union which ended in annullment, and then married Henry II (eleven years her junior). She was the mother of King Richard the Lionheart and King John. She was an imposing figure in any time period, but considering she lived during the Middle Ages, she’s incredible. She persuaded Louis to take her with him on Crusade. She incited her sons into rebellion with their father, Henry II (for which he imprisoned her for 15 years). She was a shrewd strategist. Had her husbands listened to her advice more often, things might have gone better for them. She is said to have been a great beauty in addition to being very intelligent. She was a patron to the troubadours and encouraged the flowering of medieval literature at that time. In fact, her grandfather was the first so-called “troubadour,” (and the most well-known of them all, I believe) and her son Richard was known not only for being a king and Crusader, but also for being a fine musician and composer himself.
Before I digressed about Eleanor I was talking about Time and Chance. Eleanor, as wife of Henry II, was a major character in the book. I liked her in the book. I got mad right along with her over Rosamund Clifford. In fact, her anger over Rosamund is something I’ve written about before, too. Eleanor was not one to stand idly by as her husband openly kept a concubine in one of their castles. In the book, she discovered his infidelity shortly before John was born. I am not sure if that was historically accurate or not. When she confronted the little slut, I wanted her slap her really bad, but she didn’t. Ah well, too much dignity for that, I suppose. The marriage between Henry and Eleanor had been good, at least in the fiction, up until then. But that was the beginning of the end for Eleanor. It was interesting to watch as her love for Henry grew colder until it began to disappear. You could see her encouraging her sons in open rebellion against their father within a few years of the time when the book ended, which was right after Becket’s murder.
I know that Penman does her research. I have actually relied on her research in writing my own book, because we have written about the same time period. Specifically, she was able to discover that in the Middle Ages, a town in Wales now known as Builth was spelled “Buellt.” Since that town figured in my own story, I was able to make the correction. I have no doubt that many if not most of the events in the book happened precisely as she described. But that’s the trouble. Most of the events are not really “described” so much as “told.” One bit of advice for any writer is to “show, don’t tell.” If you can get your reader to see the scene rather than hear about it from the mouth of the narrator of the characters, that’s better and more interesting writing. Too many times, Penman had characters sum up events during a conversation. I think this is because she bit off more than she could chew. The book was already more than 500 pages long, even with characters summing up some of the plot through conversations. There were a lot of characters to keep up with. It’s my fault I was confused, as she provided a list of them I should have turned to more frequently, along with a map I should have consulted more often.
Penman shifted viewpoints fairly frequently during the story. I think this was so she was able to include more information. Obviously, if you have more perspectives, you can include some incidents that other characters did not witness or know of. But I found myself simply wishing she’d pared it down and kept it simple. She does tell her stories from multiple views, which is something I should have known about her, though (having read her previously and all).
She has the extremely annoying habit of using comma splices in her writing. It drives me bonkers to read, though I am sure she does it as a stylistic device and not out of lack of knowledge. She mainly does it during dialogue. Every time I see it, it pops out at me and overshadows what she’s saying. She has done this in the other things I’ve read by her, as well, and it’s something I knew before I picked up her book.
The book was not riveting. I finished it. I think it could have been better in many ways. The scene with Becket’s murder was particularly well done, and I have to commend her for that. I have been reading some pretty good books lately — the kind that you want to spend more time with and don’t necessarily want to put down. I didn’t mind putting this one down, and sometimes it was hard to get back into. I think given the subject matter, this book could have been great had it’s scope been narrowed a bit. It’s a bit too unwieldy, I think, for most people. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone who wasn’t really interested in the time period or the historical figures involved.
Here are some links if you are interested in learning more about the Murder in the Cathedral and other events in the book:
Wikipedia’s article on Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Murder of Thomas Becket at Eyewitness to History
Becket, the Church, and Henry II (BBC History)
The Character and Legacy of Henry II (BBC History)
Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse
On a semi-related note, I must sadly report, for those of you who may not be aware, the demise of ArtMagick, which was truly the best web site showcasing pre-Raphaelite artwork (among other forms). It will be missed.