I am a big fan of the Tudors and enjoy a good historical biography. Although not a Tudor, I had come across various references to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitane whilst browsing for new books and understood her to be an ambitious and strong woman. This novel, by established historical novelist Anne O'Brien, looks at Eleanor's early years. The author has been compared to the doyenne of current historical fiction - Philippa Gregory. I have only read one Gregory novel at this point, so do not feel qualified to judge but I can see where the comparisons may be made.
We first meet Eleanor as a young Duchess in her opulent home about to meet her new husband, who would become Louis VII of France. I believe it is well documented that this was not a happy marriage. Prior to becoming the heir to the French throne, Louis was intended to become a monk, and it seemed old habits die hard. Used to the glamorous court of Aquitane, Eleanor struggles with dull, draughty Paris and is not happy. With limited powers, even over her own lands, and marginalised by those influential to her husband, she has to develop a new way to manipulate the power of the French court in order to get her own way.
O'Brien describes Eleanor as a powerful and influential woman, but only through her own wiles. A woman in the twelfth century would not be welcomed as a leader (although it appears the Aquitanians respected her) and Eleanor had to live on her wits to achieve her will. She wants to escape her unhappy marriage, but it is a long (and eventful) journey involving wars, crusades, lovers and allegations of incest. The book finished as Eleanor and Henry II are crowned in England. It would seem many biographies and even historical fiction written about Eleanor tends to start at this point (which is the point by which most people, including myself, would be mostly familiar with) so this book is a bit different in that respect.
I enjoyed O'Brien's style of writing and found it engaging and accessible, much like Gregory's. It is easy to read, and although a large book, I found I read it at a reasonable pace as the story moves along reasonably well, with no stagnant or long-winded parts.
O'Brien keeps the book moving by jumping ahead and looking back on events that occur in retrospective summation, so that we get the story but are not bogged down in potentially irrelevant detail.
Obviously it is important to remember this is fiction, therefore a bit of artistic licence needs to be allowed for. The events happened over 1000 years ago, so in many cases their accuracy cannot be certified, and in other cases the author may have to re-interpret events to keep the story on track. O'Brien does not claim to be a historian. I am not familiar with this period of history or Eleanor sufficiently in order to comment on where artistic licence has been used and its appropriateness. One thing I find historical biographies good for is as a way to introduce you to new people and characters, which can encourage you to read more. I was always intrigued to learn more about Eleanor and this has not changed, but the Tudor ladies will always be my favourites.
I do recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, who may enjoy Philippa Gregory's work, or are just interested in this period in history. The book is a comfortable read and O'Brien is obviously a talented author in this genre.