3 out of 4 stars
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In the author’s afterword, June Hall McCash quotes Voltaire’s words: “There is no history, only fictions of various degrees of plausibility.” Eleanor’s Daughter: A Novel of Marie de Champagne serves the ultimate goal of historical fiction: to breathe life into a long-forgotten era. Based on the research of a lifetime, the novel was preceded by scholarly books and articles on events and works of twelfth-century France and Anglo-Norman England. Whenever there was a gap in historical documents, the author’s imagination wonderfully filled the void.
In 1144, Eleanor of Aquitane, wife of King Louis VII of France, is anxious to talk to Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. Known to perform miracles, he is asked by the queen to help her have a child, and ensure the continuity of the royal lineage. The abbot promises to pray for a miracle if Eleanor convinces the king to make peace with the powerful Count Thibaut of Champagne. Although peace between the two is restored and the queen gives birth to a child, this is not the much expected son Louis wanted, but a daughter called Marie.
When Marie is only 3, her mother’s spirit of adventure makes her join Louis and his men in a crusade to protect the Holy Land. The crusade has a disastrous effect on her parents’ marriage. Despite the birth of her sister Aelith, Eleanor and Louis’s marriage will soon be dissolved under the pretext of being consanguineous. At an early age, Marie needs to learn to manage without a mother’s love and protection. Will she ever forgive Eleanor? Will they meet again?
Eleanor’s and Marie’s destinies are not different from that of any other daughter, sister, or niece used by medieval men to seal peace treaties or land transfers. What sets both of them apart is their incredible determination and remarkable personalities. Although it begins by following Eleanor’s actions, the novel gradually switches to Marie and her amazing life journey in a world dominated by war and political strategies. Betrothed to Count Thibault’s eldest son Henri, Marie marries when she is only 14. In time, the Countess of Champagne turns into an extraordinary woman who will do anything to protect her children, her people, and her lands.
June Hall McCash has certainly done her homework. The level of detail and historical knowledge is exceptionally well-handled. The third-person narrator skillfully moves from one scene to another. The more than 500 pages are beautifully orchestrated so that they never feel dry or dull. There are numerous characters and complicated family relations. However, all their lives come together like puzzle pieces. With such a vivid cast of characters, the novel offers an evocative and realistic image of medieval customs and traditions. What I liked most was the fact that I was granted a powerful sense of what Marie’s world must have looked like. From the splendid feasts at the French court or the grandiose marriage ceremonies to the crusaders’ wearisome ordeal and the internal struggle for power, nothing escapes the author’s keen eye.
There is nothing I disliked about this novel. On the contrary, every sentence of Marie’s story is expertly written. Every cliff-hanger chapter ending makes us wonder about what comes next. Faithful to the demands of her era, Marie de Champagne is a great wife and mother, but she is known to this day for aspiring to be more than that. She becomes a famous patron of the arts commissioning Chrétien de Troyes to write a story glorifying Lancelot’s love for Guinevere or persuading Adam de Perseigne to do a translation of the Bible into the common language. Moreover, she organizes the so-called “courts of love” where women judge matters of love, and try to educate young knights to respect and treat young ladies differently.
Eleanor’s Daughter: A Novel of Marie de Champagne is not a book for those looking for a quick, light read. Intricately layered, it tackles a wide range of topics from love and betrayal to the consequences of political alliances and religious interference into state affairs. I am recommending this novel to all those who love historical fiction at its finest. A memorable heroine such as Marie de Champagne can only add to the pleasure of reading.
Considering the length of the novel, I was surprised to count only 14 editing errors, including some minor punctuation mistakes, extra words, or missing prepositions. I am giving the book 3 out of 4 stars only because of these errors. Otherwise, this is a novel that demands and rewards the reader’s concentration.
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