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Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir
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Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir
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Apr 03, 2001 | ISBN 9780345434876

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    Apr 03, 2001 | ISBN 9780345434876

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“An alluringly candid portrait of this most public yet elusive of medieval women.”
—The Boston Globe

“Evocative . . . A rich tapestry of a bygone age and a judicious assessment of her subject’s place within it.”

Author Q&A

A conversation with Alison Weir

Sheri Holman grew up in rural Virginia and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her novel, The Dress Lodger, was published as part of the Ballantine Reader’s Circle in January 2001.

Sheri Holman: Growing up, Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine were two of my very favorite heroines. Was there anything in the writing of The Life of Elizabeth I that made you naturally turn to Eleanor as your next subject?

AW: There was nothing as such in the writing of Elizabeth I, but I felt its success opened the door to my writing a biography of Eleanor, an idea I had been trying to sell to my publishers for about eight years! I enjoy writing about strong, charismatic women, and Eleanor was, I felt, an ideal choice.

SH: There have been some marvelous movies made about Henry II–Becket (starring Richard Burton) and Lion in Winter with Katherine Hepburn and Richard Harris. Had you seen either of these films when you started work on the book, and if so, how well do you think they represented the historical players?

AW: I first saw Becket and The Lion in Winter on their releases in 1964 and 1968 respectively; I own the video of The Lion in Winter, which I have seen several times, but Becket is not available on video in the U.K., although I used to have a long-playing record of it. I am therefore very familiar with both, and they are great favourites of mine. Given the dramatic licence inherant in any historical dramas, I would say that both films are legitimate treat-ments of their subjects, if not in the letter, certainly in the spirit. Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Eleanor in The Lion in Winter is masterful, as is Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II in both films. Richard Burton made a superb Becket. I am not so sure about Richard I being portrayed as a homosexual, because there is very little evidence that he was; this view of him tells us more about our own age than about the 12th century. Nor do I think that John was the backward idiot as portrayed in The Lion in Winter. However, the treatment of Alys of France is probably very perceptive. And, yes, Eleanor was allowed out of custody to spend Christmas with her family, although we have no record of what went on between them. James Goldman has set his screenplay in an appropriate historical context and used the known facts to weave a credible tale. If you haven’t seen these films, see them now! They don’t make them like this any more!

You say in your introduction that this book “felt more like a piece of detective work than a conventional historical biography.” Can you give us a few examples of snooping? Anything that doggedly eluded you?

AW: For me, “snooping” meant trawling through piles of ancient chronicles and more modern books in order to extract as many snippets of information about Eleanor as I could find. The de-tective work involved piecing them all together and deciding which sources were the most reliable, especially where there was no corroborating information. There are many things that eluded me and every other person who wants to find out the truth about Eleanor: what she really looked like, her relation-ships with her husbands and children, the truth about her rumoured sexual adventures, her reasons for separating from Henry II, her whereabouts and activities during the years in which she merits no mention in the sources, and the true ex-tent of her political powers. The fragments of information we have do not give us a whole picture, so I have had to infer my conclusions from what is available. I realise that some people may not agree with them.

SH: How difficult is it to reconcile primary sources that put for-ward diametrically opposed portraits of Eleanor’s character? Were their certain of her contemporaries you tended to trust more, and on what did you base this trust?

AW: This leads on from my previous answer. If there is no corrobo-rative evidence that lends credence to a source, I have tended to trust those who were near to events and therefore probably in a position to know, or who knew such people. One must always take into account the prejudices of mediaeval chroni-clers, many of whom were monks, and many of whom be-lieved that women were of little importance anyway in God’s scheme of Creation, and that females who behaved like Eleanor were an abomination!

SH: Eleanor has held a lasting fascination for generations of histori-ans. How do you think portrayals of Eleanor have changed to reflect the concerns of the age in which they were written?

AW: For centuries, portrayals of Eleanor reflected the legends that grew up in her own time and in the century after her death. So powerful were these legends that it was not until the 19th century that historians thought to question them. Before then, Eleanor was seen at best as a shameless adulteress, and at worst as a murderess. In the best mediaeval tradition, her story was used to ram home a moral lesson, a ploy that was still evident in Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England (1850s). Twentieth century historians found it hard to be objective about Eleanor, and some even drew historical conclusions from the debunked romantic legends. Now we have become obsessed with her sex life, which no doubt reflects the society we live in. Furthermore, we feel obliged to assess Eleanor within the context of fashionable women’s issues, which in my opinion is not a legitimate approach when dealing with historical subjects. And we waste endless rivers of ink on post-Freudian analysis of her character and relationships, when not enough is known about them and such an approach is almost certainly inappro-priate and could result in wild inaccuracies. Which probably leaves you in no doubt as to where I stand on such issues!

SH: What do you consider to be the truth behind Eleanor’s extra-marital affairs? How have past historians dealt with them? Do you think her frank sexuality makes her more appealing to a modern readership?

AW: We do not know the truth about Eleanor’s so-called extra-marital affairs, and we probably never will. The conclusions I reached in my book were based on inferences from contem-porary sources. Most other late 20th century historians have drawn other conclusions, i.e. that such allegations were fabri-cated by scandal-mongering chroniclers who were biased against Eleanor anyway. In my opinion, these authors had an exagger-ated romantic view of their subject, and I feel we should not ignore what contemporaries were implying.

SH: Setting aside your historian’s cap and thinking like a mother, how do you rate Eleanor’s maternal instinct? Did you ever find yourself becoming frustrated by her? Or applauding her behavior?

AW: We know very little about Eleanor’s maternal role, but speaking as a mother myself, I would have found it hard to endure the long separations from my children. Nor do I really approve of mothers having favourites, as Eleanor certainly did. But who are we, in our age, to judge the actions of those who lived in a very different era, with different priorities?

SH: You’ve told me that you received an early call to history through the fine historical novel Katherine, by Anya Seton. Do you think well-researched, rigorous historical fiction can be helpful in un-derstanding a person and her period?

AW: I entirely agree that well-researched historical fiction can be an aid to understanding history. In many cases, it was an historical novel that introduced me to historical persons or periods. There are, however, two problems with this. Firstly, there is very little of this kind of fiction about nowadays; I was told recently it was a very unfashionable genre when I tried to publish a novel about Lady Jane Grey. Secondly, when it was fashionable (in the 60s and 70s), the genre became very debased by poorly researched, tritely written books. There are very few historical novels of the calibre of Anya Seton’s Katherine.

SH: What’s next? Will you work your way through the Plantagenets? AW: I am due to publish Henry VIII: The King and His Court in June 2001, and am now researching another historical whodunnit, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. Future ti-tles are now under discussion, but I am keen to write another mediaeval book, possibly on John of Gaunt of Isabella of France. Or perhaps a book about the Tower of London. I have submitted about a dozen ideas to my agent, and I’m bursting to write them all!

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