Sunday, April 18, 2010

"The Queen's Lover"

Vanora Bennett is the author of two works of nonfiction, Crying Wolf: The Return of War to Chechnya and The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar, and the novels Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Figures in Silk.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Queen's Lover, and reported the following:
On page 69 of my novel, The Queen’s Lover, my male lead, the young Welshman Owain Tudor, is asked by his hostess, the Parisian woman writer and court figure Christine de Pizan, if he would accompany her on a trip out of Paris. Christine wants to make her annual visit to the monastery at Poissy where her daughter, Marie, is a nun, but – given the dangers of the developing civil war in France - would rather have an escort for the road. When Owain agrees, the bond of friendship develops between the young messenger from the English court and his gifted, if slightly scary, literary hostess strengthens.

Because this encounter doesn’t feature the book’s central character, Catherine de Valois, I guess it is untypical. But what it does is to introduce one of the central themes of the book – refuge from violence.

Catherine, like Christine de Pizan, lives in a land ruled by a schizophrenic King and fought over by royal brothers and uncles. Catherine is the neglected youngest daughter of the king, and Christine her teacher. Both women are so frightened of the ever-worsening anarchy they live in that the act of planning possible escape routes for themselves becomes a major part of their motivation in life.

As the book develops, it’s not just the king’s madness, the civil war and the total breakdown of law and order that disrupts French lives, but also the invasion of France by the English. Because she is a princess with few choices of action beyond marriage, Catherine’s escape route involves sleeping with the enemy - a marriage of state with the canny, victorious English King, Henry V, and a move to the hostile territory of England where - even if the people are foreigners, and their wealth is built on the destruction of France, and she’s never quite known how to explain away the troublesome feelings she’s always had for Owain Tudor - Catherine can know relief from fear.

Christine’s resources are very different, as the choice of refuge she makes. Christine, brought up at the French court where her Venetian father was the King’s astrologer, has been left almost destitute after her young husband died in debt, but through sheer strength of purpose, talent, intelligence and good PR with the nobility, has climbed back to become the first women to be paid to write poetry for the court. She’s spent years making a living writing the chivalrous troubadour verse of the day, as well as everything from military treatises to histories of past kings to lectures on how princes should behave to accounts of her own grief at being widowed, all beautifully illustrated in her women-only atelier in the gloriously sophisticated art world of medieval Paris.

Christine’s longed-for place of escape is, therefore, the peaceful monastery at Poissy, where she dreams of being reunited with her daughter, for 365 days of the year instead of just the one a year she’s permitted while she’s still at court. She sees Poissy as a place of almost miraculous freedom from the wants and needs of this world. All that keeps Christine from running there for good is the knowledge, once she goes behind the walls, that she’ll never see her equally beloved son, Jean, and his two small children.

There’s a third important female character in the book, Joan of Arc, whose attitude to war contrasts sharply with both Catherine’s and Christine’s. Fear doesn’t cripple Joan. When war breaks over her life, this simple peasant girl doesn’t seek a place of safety. Instead, she hears voices telling her to go and join the French army, and, after several stories of miracles, emerged at the head of it bearing a sword often said to have been given her in a miracle. Joan believes God wants to use her as an instrument to save the French.

Joan only comes into this story when she’s already a prisoner in the hands of the English, heading for the flames of her subsequent burning. By this time she’s half mad with fear, and mistakes Catherine, when the princess sneaks into her cell, for a visitation from a holy Saint Catherine. But Joan is still brave enough to keep to her principles.

Learning about Joan’s courage, and the way she’s being cheated by the English not only out of a fair trial but out of her very life, is what finally jolts Catherine out of a lifetime of passive acceptance of her lot and into more positive action to reorganize her surroundings so she can live it to the full, and be with the man she loves.

That, and the unexpected help of her whimsical, selfish old mother … the queen whose monstrous cynicism is said to have set the French civil war going in the first place…
Browse inside The Queen’s Lover, and learn more about the author and her work at Vanora Bennett's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue