Anne O’Brien’s historical novel Queen Defiant whisks the reader into the world of one of history’s most fascinating and influential women. Married off at just 16 to Louis, monk-king of France, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, must endure a cold and lonely existence in the primitive citadel on the Ile de la Cite. As queen of France life should be wonderful. But it’s not. Vibrant, educated, and used to the lush culture of Aquitaine, Eleanor cannot resign herself to the harsh, colorless life of Paris in the 12th century. Her husband would rather spend his days, and nights, on his knees before the altar of Notre Dame, and the clergy who surround him dislike the new queen.
Eleanor does battle for control of her destiny with zealot Bishops and a Pope, she follows her husband on a crusade that ends in ignominy, and fights off the wily machinations of a malicious eunuch, Thierry Galeran, who plots to keep her isolated and powerless. Eleanor perseveres through fifteen years of marriage with a man who rarely touches her, and then only out of duty and a desire for an heir for France.
Eleanor’s search for love and a man worthy of her leads her into two reckless love affairs. There she finds physical fulfillment, but no rescue from her predicament.
Eleanor’s quest for personal freedom eventually allies her with a man eleven years younger than herself: Henry Plantagenet, the nineteen year old Duke of Normandy and future King of England. Leaving behind her two little daughters by Louis, Eleanor obtains her longed-for annulment and flees Paris.
While her life with the remarkable and passionate Henry offers an end to her longing for a husband who desires her, we are left knowing this union will have its own challenges.
Ms. O’Brien’s prose is smooth and uncomplicated. Her characters’ speech is not overburdened with archaic expressions, yet still evokes the time period. She has obviously done a good deal of research and it makes this story pleasurable to someone like myself, who loves all things medieval.
I very much enjoyed reading this novel, and recommend it.
Below is my interview with the author.
How long have you been writing historical fiction and how did you decide upon that genre?
I started writing seriously eight years ago. I had tried my hand at short stories but decided that I should go for a full length novel. I wrote historical romances for Harlequin Mills and Boon – ten in all, ranging through medieval, to English Civil War and Restoration, and Regency – but my ambition was to explore the personalities who had lived and shaped our history. And so when I came across Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, I realized that I knew very little about her and decided to investigate. This became her story in The Virgin Widow.
And why history? I cannot recall a time when I did not enjoy history, either reading it or visiting historic sites. My academic qualifications are in history and I taught history in my previous professional life. It seemed an obvious choice to me because the past can be so vivid with such marvelous characters and events to feed the imagination. I have never regretted it.
Do you do your own historical research?
Yes, most definitely. It is part of the enjoyment of the whole process, discovering the hidden corners of a character’s life as well as the general sweep of the time in which she lived. I enjoy how new discoveries open up different possibilities in the plot, sometimes taking me in a direction I had not at first seen. And when all the pieces fit together, it can be incredibly satisfying.
I use the internet – and increasingly so as more articles and documents are available, but I enjoy books far more. I am a curling-up-with-a-book type. I live near Hay on Wye, the book town on the Welsh border. It is a splendid place for browsing and picking up books that add something extra or give a different slant on what I am writing. The problem of course of doing my own research is that when I lose a reference, or can’t remember where I noted down a particularly vital event, I have to find it myself. It can be very time consuming and infuriating – and I have only myself to blame for being careless in the first place!
How did you meet your agent?
I met my agent through the pages of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. When I had completed The Virgin Widow I followed that pattern of many aspiring authors and sent out the first three chapters to agents who might be interested in the historical genre. It was a lengthy and nerve-racking experience and I, like many others, had to be prepared to accept rejection. It is all character very forming! And such a very long process. But eventually, success. My agent Jane Judd liked my work and asked to see the whole novel – and the rest is history! She has been an invaluable friend and counselor ever since.
What made you want to write about Eleanor?
I discovered Eleanor, many years ago when I first came across The Passionate Brood by Margaret Campbell Barnes. It is a splendid novel of the Plantagenet family, focusing particularly on Richard the Lionheart and the mythical character of Robin Hood, but Eleanor made a striking appearance in it. I loved the book, and this Plantagenet family had me enthralled for weeks. I was delighted when it was reissued recently. I read it again and discovered that it had the same charm as I had remembered.
And then I crossed Eleanor’s path again in the classic film Lion in Winter (1968), with Katherine Hepburn playing a magnificently aging Eleanor opposite an idiosyncratic Peter O’Toole as Henry. They portray a stormy, volatile couple, unable to live together in peace in the final years of their marriage. When I think of Eleanor as she was in later life, I still see and hear Katharine in that role. The costume was excellent, and the atmosphere of those turbulent times in the twelfth century was very powerful. I was hooked.
The idea for a novel about Eleanor did not come until two years ago – 2009 – when Eleanor’s early adventures were so compelling that I felt I must write about them.
What did you find out about Eleanor that was unexpected?
I think it was the scale of the opposition to Eleanor that surprised me. The Frankish court had always made derogatory comments about the Aquitainians, finding them louche and ‘better feeders than fighters’ but Eleanor’s frivolous nature and appearance, and her dabbling in politics, earned her condemnation on a far more personal level from Louis’ minister Abbot Suger and from the church in the form of the saintly Bernard of Clairvaux. On crusade, her reputation was irreparably ruined when blame for the French losses was placed at her door. The vicious rumors about her conduct and private life were many and long lasting.
It struck me that Eleanor must have had remarkable spirit and self-belief not to be affected by this chorus of antagonism. And yet from all we can discover she held her head high and overcame it all. For a woman living in the twelfth century, even a woman of noble birth, she was truly impressive.
What book of yours is your favorite?
A difficult one! I have a very soft spot for Anne Neville because she was the first character I researched and wrote about in depth. I think she will always remain very close to my heart. But Eleanor is the one who spoke most loudly to me when I was writing Queen Defiant. Her character was well formed from the very beginning, and I felt that she drove my writing through to the end. I think she is my favorite character simply because she is so full of vitality, and perhaps will always be. Perhaps until my next heroine comes along …
What are you working on now?
My next novel for release in 2012 is already complete and with my editors at NAL. It is The King’s Concubine. The ‘heroine’ is Alice Perrers, the notorious mistress of King Edward III, of whom we know very few actual facts, only what was said about her in her lifetime. I felt an urge to write about her because she has such a bad press from her contemporaries and I thought that no one could be quite as thoroughly bad as she was painted. Her critics, of course, were all men who resented her pre-eminence, so that encouraged me even more. I thought I should give Alice the opportunity to speak out and put her own side to the story. Not that she was whiter than snow. Alice proved to be a heroine not in the usual mode. I found it a challenging experience, but a fascinating one.
I am now taking my first steps into the life of Katherine de Valois, the wife of King Henry V. She is very different from my previous heroines, experiencing a life of both tragedy and happiness. I am enjoying discovering about her, and I do not think that she was as lacking in spirit or intelligence as she has sometimes been portrayed. Early days yet.
What are you reading now?
I am reading an early copy, for endorsement, of the debut historical novel The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot which will be released by NAL next year. I knew very little about the two sisters, Eleanor and Marguerite of Provence, who became Queens of England and France. I am finding it most enjoyable as it opens a window into life and politics in the two courts in the 13th century. It is certainly a novel to look out for.
Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
Oh dear! Is this baring my soul?
I am something of a control freak when it comes to writing. I like lists which I can check off as I have completed tasks I have set myself. I have to get up early, when all is calm and quiet, and deal with admin and emails, and social media. Then I can concentrate and enjoy getting down to writing. If something interrupts my early morning planning, I am not happy! I enjoy holidays of course when I am not writing and can relax – without any lists at all! – but otherwise I am a lost cause. I accept that I have to be organized – and it works for me.
This ‘control freakiness’ is not something I usually admit to – and now all your readers know!
If you would like to purchase Queen Defiant simply click on the photo of the cover in the sidebar.