I've invited Anne O'Brien, author of Devil's Consort, to tell us more about her fascinating research on Eleanor of Aquitaine while writing her novel . She's kindly accepted and even granted you the chance to win a copy of the book. So, if you love historical fiction, don't miss it! Leave your comments and add an e-mail address to enter the giveaway which is open internationally and ends on May 23rd. Enjoy her thoroughly written, very interesting piece and good luck!
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall ... by Anne O'Brien
Born in 1122, almost 900 year ago, Eleanor of Aquitaine still fascinates. We know much of her life story, her marriages, her adventures. We can admire her strong-willed character, experience her dangerous journeys on Crusade and disapprove of some of the choices she made. We can rejoice with her when she frees herself from Louis, and mourn the deaths of her children and the breakdown of her relationship with Henry Plantagenet. But when I began my research for DEVIL’S CONSORT I discovered that to put a face to her name was no easy task. It was, I decided, essential to do so. My readers and fans of Eleanor would wish to visualise this remarkable woman as they wept and rejoiced with her.
By repute she was beautiful. Even her enemies, who had little good to say about her, agreed on this point. She was on record as having lovely eyes and a noble countenance, a woman who was graciously lovely with an abundance of charm. Her troubadours sang of her as the Queen of Joy, whose beauty had no equal. Interesting descriptions, but were they accurate? Were they enough to breathe life into Eleanor? No one left a written comment on her colouring, her features or her figure.
Eleanor’s seal gives us a portrayal of her: a tall, lithe, slender woman with crown and sceptre, but this is a formal image of a woman who held power with graceful authority. She is every inch a regal Queen, but it is quite impersonal and did to help my investigations.
And so to France, to the impressive Abbey of Fontevrault. Eleanor was eighty years old when she retired from the world to live at the Abbey in monastic seclusion, remaining headstrong and politically aware until the final months before her death on 1 April, 1204. There I discovered her, a Queen of England buried in France, impressive in effigy despite the flaking paint. She rests beside her husband Henry II, looking far more serene than I imagine she ever did in life. Even Henry looks at peace which I think he never was with Eleanor for a mate.
The effigy shows her to be tall and large boned, a stern woman who would have had a considerable presence. What took my interest was that her hands are raised, not in prayer, but with an open book as if she were reading, her mind still lively even in death. I like to think she is reading the verses the troubadours would have sung to her, even the ones her grandfather, the famous Duke William IX, might have written; some romantic and tender, some lewd and erotic. Eleanor would have enjoyed them all. The image has remained with me until this day. But is it accurate enough to show us what she looked like? Images on tombs are notoriously unrealistic, but still I admire this portrayal of strong intelligence.
I was still on the chase to discover what Eleanor might have looked like as a young girl when I discovered this illustration.
I like this depiction, and can imagine Eleanor with her crown and lively face and her vibrant uncovered hair. She is not shy. Her raised hand suggests that she is not slow to draw attention to herself. Her gown and mantle are richly coloured. This is a very confident, spirited Eleanor who went crusading against the wishes of her husband Louis VII.
What is certain about Eleanor is that she enjoyed clothes; she was the fashion icon of her day. The most vibrant description of her comes not from a portrait, but from the vicious tongue of her arch enemy Bernard of Clairvaux, who gives us a vivid picture of Eleanor as she stalked through the rooms of the Cite Palace in Paris. Her skirts drag the floor behind her, her sleeves so long that they are knotted up to keep them from trailing in the dust. Her soft shoes are made from the skins of squirrels, and her gowns are all luxury with tissues of wool or costly fur lined silk, embroidered with gold and silver thread. Eleanor drips with jewellery because she revels in bracelets and ear pendants. Furthermore – and how immodest! – her hair is worn uncovered except for a draped veil of finest linen held in place by a jewelled circlet. She never wears a wimple. And cosmetics! Eleanor uses such art to enhance her beauty despite Bernard’s attack on her. ‘Fie on the beauty that is put on in the morning and laid aside and night!’ To Bernard of Clairvaux Eleanor was a daughter of Belial, entirely superficial and sinful. To us she is a glittering character who takes our eye and our admiration.
But the image I found most poignant and believe to be the most realistic of all is the one in the fresco in the chapel at the castle of Chinon where Henry kept Eleanor under restraint for long months at a time.
Here Eleanor, with free-flowing auburn hair and crown, riding beside her daughter Joanna, is being led away by Henry to imprisonment. Her face is solemn and strained but she is still very much in control. She is handing over the gerfalcon, the symbol of Aquitaine to her beloved son Richard, Coeur de Lion. I find this a very moving scene. It is thought to have been painted in her lifetime. Perhaps this is the true Eleanor for her granddaughter Blanca of Castile, who was thought to resemble her grandmother, was described as having long red-brown hair and classical features.
So this is Eleanor as I see her; tall and beautiful with striking features, energetic and confident in a man’s world, graceful in dancing, a competent horsewoman. Her hair is auburn and she has the fearless green eyes that legend had given her. She is bold and courageous. How could I resist breathing new life into this dramatic woman so that we might appreciate her today? I allowed her to speak and act as I thought she would. This is the story of Devil’s Consort. I loved writing it; I found Eleanor totally appealing, as I hope you will too.
Please visit me at my website and on Facebook for regular updates on what we – Eleanor and I - are doing. I always look forward to hearing from my readers. You can also follow me, and Eleanor, on Twitter.
A short biography
I was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After gaining a B.A. Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Masters degree in education at Hull, I lived in the East Riding for many years as a teacher of history. Always a prolific reader, I enjoyed historical fiction and was encouraged to try my hand at writing. Success in short story competitions spurred me on.
Leaving teaching - but not my love of history - I wrote my first historical romance, a Regency, which was published by Harlequin Mills and Boon in 2005. To date ten historical novels and a novella, ranging from medieval, through the English Civil War and Restoration and back to Regency, have been published in the UK, North America and Australia as well as in translation throughout Europe and in Japan.
I now live with my husband in an eighteenth century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. It is a wild, beautiful place on the borders between England and Wales, renowned for its black and white timbered houses, ruined castles and priories and magnificent churches. It is steeped in history, famous people and bloody deeds as well as ghosts and folk lore, all of which give me inspiration and sources for my writing, particularly in medieval times.
Devil’s Consort is my second novel based on the life of an historical character, my first being Virgin Widow, the story of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III. I am at present working on the first in a series of Wives and Mistresses in the years of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. It features Alice Perrers, Edward III’s notorious concubine.