My general reaction when seeing a new book release from Anne O’Brien is something along the lines of, “But I always wanted to read more about her!” – she really does have an eye for drawing out the forgotten yet fascinating females of history. Whether it’s Elizabeth of Lancaster – married off to an eight year-old, she ditched the kid for rakish John Holland, or Katherine Swynford (one of my personal heroines) or the disaster-prone Joanna of Navarre, it’s always a relief to find a writer of historical fiction who is willing to look past the Wars of the Roses for their material. The Shadow Queen shows O’Brien keeping up her pattern of originality as she shines a light on the Fair Maid of Kent, the lady who was Princess of Wales, Princess of Aquitaine and oh so very nearly Queen of England. As with so many of O’Brien’s heroines, I first read about Joan of Kent in a historical biography and was immediately stunned that she had been so forgotten – as with so many of the Plantagenets, her life was truly stranger than fiction.
Joan of Kent was widely celebrated for her beauty and was the granddaughter of Edward I, although there was that nasty business where her father was executed for treason during all the mess around Edward II being deposed. All the same, she was well-favoured in court as Edward III’s cousin and grew up with everyone expecting her to make a suitably grand dynastic marriage. At thirteen, she was married off to William Monacute, the future Earl of Salisbury and all appeared to be well. But it wasn’t. Because at the age of twelve, Joan had already secretly married a different man, Thomas Holland (and consummated the union) and then waved him off to fight in France. With her family hopeful that he might be dead, they had forced her into a second union despite the likelihood of it being bigamous. Cue an awful lot of backing and forthing to the Papal seat in Avignon before his Holiness concluded that Joan had actually been married to Thomas all along and that she should return to him.
Of course, typically for historical figures, there is no tidy Happy Ever After to be had here; as a soldier’s wife, Joan had to endure years of uncertainty and the loss of all of the Salisbury wealth, but they produced four children together before Thomas died on an overseas campaign. Given that Husband #2 was still alive, Joan of Kent might not have appeared a particularly attractive marital prospect for some, despite the legendary beauty. Edward Prince of Wales (known to history as the Black Prince) felt differently however, with the two of them having known each other since childhood as well as being second cousins. Again without seeking royal consent, Joan and Edward married, setting off another round of backing and forthing to Avignon and leading to a seriously annoyed Pope demanding that Joan promise to never again seek a clandestine marriage and that the pair of them build two royal chapels to show that they were sorry.
Even here though, it’s hard to pick out a happy conclusion as the newly-weds’ reign in Aquitaine was ill-starred, Edward got ill with the long-term debilitating illness that eventually killed him and their eldest son died. It’s an ambitious tale to try to fit into a historical fiction template and I did have the feeling that O’Brien was less assured than she had been in previous novels. With such a varied life, what can we honestly say motivated Joan of Kent? It’s quite something to make an illicit marriage at the age of twelve – did she really just do it for love? Did she make her second marriage because she had tired of Thomas? Did she ever care at all for William? Did William truly keep her prisoner? Was she motivated by ambition or greed? What was it that drew her to her subsequent (second? third?) husband? O’Brien seems to think her ruthless, that she put her own interests before anything else. What if she was a romantic? I wished that O’Brien had fleshed out her relationship with Edward before their marriage – for a prince who could have married anyone, what drew him to Joan? She was beautiful, he had known her all his life – is it so outrageous to suppose that they had long had a spark?
What always fascinated me about Joan of Kent was the extent to which she pulled strings in the background. While her husband died before she could be Queen, given that her son acceded at nine years old, she was a necessary mover behind the throne and she does seem to have developed a strong alliance with John of Gaunt. Long-term fans of the Plantagenets will find much to enjoy in The Shadow Queen which breathes fresh light into a too-long neglected corner of history. This is not to say that it was a perfect read – I have grown used to O’Brien’s habit of spending a page or so having her heroine look into a mirror and describe her own face but I did find myself wondering about the editing process in The Shadow Queen. In the acknowledgments, O’Brien expresses thanks to her team who ‘take her ideas’ and shape them into a book. I appreciate that I am receiving a proof copy, but I was still startled by how repetitive the text was. There was multiple instances of exchanges such as this, “William had thrown down the gauntlet and Thomas had really picked it up. “What do you expect”, I said to William, “You threw down the gauntlet and Thomas picked it up”. Reading this on a Kindle, I took to highlighting the passages like this and it got into the double figures so that while I heartily enjoyed the story, I did feel that O’Brien had been somewhat failed by her editing team.
In terms of enjoyment however, The Shadow Queen rates highly. While my love for the Black Prince has never quite equalled my passion for John of Gaunt, I did still get as giddy as a goose when I saw his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, so reading more about his life was fascinating. There is definite room for further development with the hints dropped within the novel of Richard II’s future instability – could O’Brien feature the life of Anne of Bohemia, long thought of as ‘Good Queen Anne’ and a stabilising force on her husband? Or even Mary, Henry IV’s first wife, another figure who I have long wondered about. O’Brien writes with a great deal of feeling and I do feel that she seeks to understand and to humanise these figures of history rather than to demonise or over-dramatise, unlike a certain author who regular readers will know I loathe (*cough* Gillipa Phregory *cough*). Reading an O’Brien novel is for me like sitting down to a very indulgent dessert and The Shadow Queen was an ideal companion during my holiday.
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Published by HarperCollins UK on May 4th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Romance, Medieval, General, Coming of Age, Alternative History
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