Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Review: The Passionate Brood

Title: The Passionate Brood

Author: Margaret Campbell Barnes

Date: 1945 (the picture shows a newer edition than I have)

Publisher: Macrae Smith / Signet

ISBN: none

Length: 286 pages

Quote: “Only a few stilted parchments record any of their actual sayings. But as each fragment of the fascinating jigsaw…is fitted into place…it is easy to imagine the sort of things they might have said.”

Even from the dime-a-dozen rack at a charity sale I wouldn’t have bought a paperback novel that hypes “The blazing romance of Richard the Lion-Hearted and Berengaria” (on the front cover) and, worse yet, starts a blurb on the back with “To hold the ecstasy she found in Richard’s arms.” Say whaaat? What kind of wool is this publisher trying to pull over our eyes? I’ve not specialized in English history but even I know that Richard I is remembered as a warrior, not a romantic hero; the English adored him mainly because they missed him, and that was largely because his baby brother and viceregent, John, was by all accounts even harder to like. About Richard’s sex life little is known; some historians think he was homosexual. He and Berengaria were closer in age, and may have liked each other better, than some other medieval princes and princesses who were married for dynastic reasons--but they weren't married long and didn't spend most of their married years in the same places.

Considered strictly as a war chief, Richard was colorful enough to be the topic of several web sites; here are three.

One way of remembering the Plantagenets is that Richard spent so much of his reign overseas, wasting the kingdom’s wealth on unnecessary wars, that he barely qualified to be called a King of England, while John was such a bossy little jerk that, when he outlived Richard and became King of England in his own right, his abuses prompted people to write the document known as the Magna Charta.  Oh, and they had a brother, who died young, and some sisters, one of whom married Richard’s fellow crusader Raymond of Toulouse. That much the facts support.

But there are other ways this family were remembered. They were a brilliant family of publicity lovers, not unlike the Buckleys or Kennedys. People remembered all kinds of things about them that might or might not have been true. Henry II, the oldest brother, was so popular he was crowned while his father, Henry I, still lived. Johanna (or Joanna or Joan) and Richard were considered attractive and charismatic, among other things because they had red-blond hair. John was short, charmless, and easy to cast as a villain since he was not as loyal to his older brother as he ought to have been. Their heirs were rich, famous, charismatic, and greatly admired, as well. All kinds of stories and ballads were woven around their names.

Anyway, a friend who used to pick up the occasional “blazing romance” had handed this novel down to me. For some time I didn’t want to read it. I’m not a great fan of either “blazing romance” or Richard I, and thought Barnes had to have written a load of intolerable drivel to get the blurb writer to tag her book with that twaddle about “ecstasy.” There is no factual evidence that Richard I ever felt romance, himself, or inspired it in anybody, male or female. He was accused of rape and sodomy, though none of the accusations seems to have stuck, and if he had a son that son wasn't born to Berengaria or to anyone else Richard publicly claimed as a friend. Richard I may well hold the record for having done less with more sexual opportunities than any other young man on Earth…his Crusade was supposedly about the Christian religion, which preaches chastity, and Richard may even have tried to practice chastity.

But I finally read Barnes’ novel, and I’m delighted to report that the blurb was deliberately misleading, a bit of mid-twentieth-century sales hype. Barnes’ material is actually the “passions” recorded of the whole Plantagenet family—their passions for war and power more than sex—and the legends their “passionate,” indeed “mad,” behavior spawned.

Richard really had a foster brother, a commoner born the same day Richard was, who grew up to be a scholar and writer. Barnes hadn't found this brother's name in her research; it seems to have been Alexander.

According to one tradition (note absence of this item from the historical discussions linked here), Richard outlawed his foster brother for no obvious reason, and the brother became some part of the legend of Robin Hood. Barnes uses this story. There are others; Richard did things like outlawing people for no obvious reason, and various traditions identify several wrongly outlawed friends and relatives of his with Robin Hood.

In spite of traditional rules about women in army camps, Richard's entourage included not only Joan and Berengaria, but also his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, a formidable old lady by any standard. Nevertheless, the women "cared for" one another away from the soldiers, and Berengaria had no children.

Richard really was kidnapped and held in prison, not by the Arab enemy, but by Leopold of Austria, a fellow crusader with whom he’d quarrelled, after the crusade. Tradition tells us that Richard was a bit of a song writer and, among his entourage, his favorite “serving man” was an even better song writer called Blondel. No record of Blondel’s name, wages, job description, etc., has been preserved. Tradition, however, credits Richard and Blondel with having found each other by recognizing each other’s voices and/or songs.

John, Philip of France (whose sister Richard had refused to marry), and others conspired to send money to Richard’s captors against whatever ransom an already impoverished England could send. Wikipedia, citing Toby Purser's Medieval England, asserts that the money was offered to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, who declined the offer because he had been excommunicated for the sin of kidnapping a king. The BBC writer credits Henry VI with delivering the ransom to Leopold. According to an old legend, however, Robin Hood and his merry men robbed the conspirators, sent the money to ransom Richard, and sent the conspirators home in such embarrassment that the conspirators never dared to press charges or seek revenge. This legend formed the core of the Disney movie about Robin Hood, in which readers of a certain age may remember the Merry Men spanking the villains with a broadsword and making them drink toast after toast, “To Richard of England! God grant him health and long life! Confusion to his enemies!” etc., etc., until that particular lot of enemies, at least, were thoroughly confused.

Barnes takes these legends as material and adds to them. Her princess Johanna protests being married to an old, sick foreign king because she’s secretly in love with Robin; Richard tries to help Johanna marry a Spanish prince who has been a friend of his, and instead finds himself married to Berengaria, the prince’s sister. (That really happened; Barnes overlooks one, and changes the name of another, princess whom Richard was supposed to have married instead.) From young Richard’s point of view, the wedding is merely a delay for what he wants to do, which is win glory in the Crusades. (That really happened.) An even more annoying delay is having to go back to England, where Richard quarrels with Robin about politics and outlaws Robin. 

Barnes may have invented the quarrel between Richard and Berengaria about Ida, bratty daughter of Isaac Comnenos, whom Richard has taken hostage. She also invents a pregnancy that terminates involuntarily when Berengaria is disgusted by the sight of a decaying body. (There was some question whether Berengaria and Richard ever gave themselves a chance to produce a child.) Then there's a scene where Johanna returns to England and gets to tell Robin how much she will always love him although she intends to be a real wife to Raymond. Toward the end of the story, Barnes' Richard is overcome by grief upon hearing of Johanna's death; most historians agree that Johanna was overcome by grief upon hearing of Richard's death. In any case they died around the same time, young; John outlived all of his older and more popular siblings but even he didn't live to the age of fifty.

It's hard to sugar-coat the facts about Richard's last years. Barnes has him believe a prophecy that he will be safe in battle as long as he fights in just causes. Richard spent the time of his truce with Saladin (or as much of it as he lived through) fighting useless, costly wars against people with whom he had quarrelled. He took a fatal arrow shot and died in Eleanor's arms. Berengaria was not present, although Barnes gives them a sweet little scene in which Richard hurries her off the scene before she can notice that he's been wounded.

Barnes lets readers down by breaking off the story of the three “passionate” Plantagenet siblings with the death of Richard. The story goes on, although it doesn’t get prettier; its accurate, somewhat happy ending would have been the Magna Charta, inspired mostly by John's greed, but certainly not as if Richard, Joanna, Henry, or their parents hadn't been burdens on the taxpayers. Barnes says she wanted her story to be a celebration of England so it's not clear why she stops short of one of the high points of English history.

Still, if it’s more fiction than fact, at least The Passionate Brood is not such trashy fiction as my paperback copy appears to be. Barnes is not the one who blathers about the ecstasy Berengaria found in Richard’s arms, or elsewhere.She concedes all three Plantagenets some tasteful, never explicit, sexual pleasures too but she does concede them the passions they displayed in real life—for “glory” and the throne of England and the honors the medieval church awarded to crusaders.

This web site has attacked worse examples of historical fiction; Kenilworth comes to mind, as does a forgettable rust-colored film of the 1980s that was called The Passion of the Christ and got all of its publicity by annoying Jerry Falwell. (I was taken to it "to see whether it's as bad as Falwell says." The parts I saw would have caused any middle school student who'd made it so obvious that he never read the book to have to repeat the entire year, in my day, but I may well have missed some better parts by sleeping through most of the movie.) Barnes could have written a better book with more research, but then again, if she'd been Walter Scott or the poor idjit who made that movie, she could easily have written a worse one. 

It's been a long time since Barnes has had any use for a dollar. The copy I have, in real life, is old and worn and looks unnecessarily tawdry. Go ahead and buy the newer, prettier edition from the Amazon seller who snapped the picture above if you like. If you want to support this web site, send $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment to either of the addresses at the bottom of the screen.

If you want to read about the Plantagenets, I recommend the sober histories. Some parts of English history are as boring as non-readers claim. The Plantagenet era was not one of those. They were lively, brilliant, undisciplined, possibly slightly deranged Rich Young Rulers--not quite as outrageous as the Tudors, but close. The straight historical studies of their lives blaze with jewels and ring with sword strokes. As the web sites linked in this post (and the ones that weren't linked) demonstrate, everyone in this family was a good story, and didn't need to be embroidered upon by novelists.

But I have to admit I enjoy sorting out the facts, the fiction, and the inexcusable stupidities in an historical novel of dubious veracity. I enjoyed reading The Passionate Brood, and I enjoyed reviewing it.