Joanna of Navarre is one of our more forgotten queens – as Henry IV’s second wife, she bore no children and thus seemed to drop out of the historical radar. The only thing I knew about her before I read this book was that her stepson had accused her of trying to kill him after the death of his father and had her imprisoned for several years. Despite the tendency for authors of historical fiction to be drawn to ‘feisty’ women (I hate that word, it’s only ever applied to women and it’s so patronising), making Joanna of Navarre likeable is no easy task.
The novel picks up with Joanna companionably married to her first husband, the Duke of Brittany. Having borne the necessary heirs, theirs is a relationship of amicable convenience and at more than twenty years Joanna’s senior, the Duke is more of a mentor figure than a lover. According to chronicles, a friendship sprung up between Joanna and Henry during his exile abroad at the pleasure of Richard II and this is what the author picks up on here. O’Brien depicts the dutiful Joanna as a woman glimpsing at the possibilities of passion – adultery is firmly off the cards but there is a spikiness to her interactions with Henry that mean that the reader knows almost before she does that there is a spark between the two.
I remember hearing an interview with a writer of Mills and Boon stories who explained that she tended to either make her heroine a virgin or as near to it as possible, to emphasise the drama of her discovery of physical pleasure at the hands of the romantic hero. This is a notable pattern in much of historical romance too. Joanna makes much of the physical pleasure she experiences with Henry when they are finally united – it is this which has chiefly drawn her to him. Joanna left her position as Regent for her son, her position amongst her children – all of it – to move to a foreign land. She actually gave it all up for a man.
In our ‘post-feminist world’ (we most definitely do still need feminism), it is interesting to read of a woman embracing passion over work. All too often authors of historical fiction attempt to transplant contemporary feminist mores into a world that had yet to understand them but here the reverse is almost true. Certainly if I heard of a friend who was about to abandon her children, leave her job and move to a different country, I would at the very least encourage her to have a good think before she did so. Yet that is what Joanna did, she upped sticks and she left – and when she got there, she became one of England’s most unpopular queens due to her lavish spending and habits of hiring only her fellow expatriates.
Another way in which The Queen’s Choice breaks the mold is the way in which O’Brien embraces the fact that Joanna’s life did not turn out as she might have planned. I had previously noted that one of her earlier novels, The Virgin Widow dodges the fact that its central character and her child died young and what became of her husband. There is none of the same footwork with this novel. Joanna and Henry had no children of their own, many of her offspring with her late husband died young, her stepchildren were not fond of her. Her marriage to Henry was marred by difficulties in communication and political disagreements – their love was true but the times were not. Henry dies young and leave her to make her own way – ‘there is so much death.’ Joanna transparently does not make things easy for herself, being unprepared for what her choice has given her – a life subordinate to Henry.
As her step-son turns against her, Joanna becomes bitter and angry with her lot, her reduced circumstances as she is imprisoned, ignored, set up as a traitor. Her own lack of personal popularity means that she has few to fight her corner and her furious tirades are understandable but do not make her any softer of a character. The finest moment of the novel comes however when Joanna’s long-standing friend persuades her that since she cannot change her circumstance, her best option is to accept them. To make peace with her self and those around her. To me, I found this message startlingly beautiful – it is so easy for authors to create iconoclastic Mary Sues who challenge the status quo and win back what is their due but here, Anne O’Brien draws out a less anachronistic and far more believable other option.
Women had few choices in the medieval world – Joanna’s choice might be seen as an unfortunate one, but it only becomes less so by her own attitude towards it. There must have been scores upon scores of medieval women in her situation – betrayed by a system that robbed them of their wealth, their rights – even the rights over their own bodies. They could not rebel. The odds were never in their favour. In those situations, the only choice left is to go easy on yourself. It is not a joyous ending – those all too often did not fit – but it is a positive one, to emphasise that even for a strong woman like Joanna, this limited life did not have to be one of misery if she chose not to let it be.
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Published by MIRA on January 14th 2016
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