Sunday, April 20, 2008

There Had to be More to the Story

These are the historical facts (as best I can tell from my admittedly limited research): Charles the Bald, King of France, married his 12-year-old daughter Judith to Aethelwulf, the 60-year-old king of Wessex, England, in 856. When Aethelwulf and Judith returned to England, they were met with a rebellion led by Aethelwulf's oldest living son, Aethelbald, who had been ruling Wessex while his father was on a pilgrimage to Rome. Aethelwulf abdicated rule of Wessex to Aethelbald, and in another year or so, dies. 14-year-old Judith then marries Aethelbald, a move that was both illegal and highly unpopular. Within another year and a half, the marriage is annulled, and not long afterward, Aethelbald also dies. The next we hear of Judith, she is 18 and has eloped with Baudoin Bras-de-fer, one of her father's soldiers. Charles excommunicates the couple, who then travel to Rome to seek an audience with the pope in hopes of getting the Church's support of their marriage. Pope Nicolas agrees the marriage is valid, Charles names Baudoin as Count of Flanders, and Baudoin and Judith have a son before she dies a few years later at age 26.

When I read a summary of history like that, I often wonder what really happened. That's not to say I don't believe the writers of history, but these names on the pages were people, with personalities and motivations, and I just would like to hear the story behind the summary.

Margaret Leighton's novel Judith of France is a fine effort to do just that. In Leighton's novel, Judith becomes a naive young girl who is manipulated by her father and the local archbishop, and who falls in love with the handsome hero of her father's wars against the Vikings but dutifully goes off to England with her weary but kind old husband. Aethelbald -- who seems to be a character really shrouded in mystery as far as history is concerned -- becomes a vain and ambitious young man with a violent temper, and the explanation Leighton gives for how Judith married him is entirely believable. Leighton also fills in some of the blanks of how Judith got from the marriage to Aethelbald to an elopement with Baudoin, and it is a story full of adventure and romance. The character of Baudoin is interesting -- on the one hand, he seems to be your average romance-novel hunk, but on the other, he has his own hangups about being the son of a freedman in a society prejudiced against anyone except highborn people, and the question of his possible involvement in Aethelbald's death is never really resolved.

This story was "young adult" fiction of 1948, and as such, it's much more demure than the same story written today probably would be. Actually, that points to something that I found a bit disappointing this time around (I haven't read this book since I was a teenager). Leighton develops Aethelbald's character into a great villain -- the description of his eyes as looking like a hawk's was really cool. The scene when he forces Judith to marry him is powerful. But then it is followed up with this passage: "...Judith found all her fears and scruples being swept away by Aethelbald's wooing. He was young, he was strong and bold; when he set himself to be charming it would take a far harder and more experienced heart than Judith's to resist him." It's a little out of character for Judith to go from being completely repulsed and fearful of him to being charmed by him. I needed to see that happening instead of having two sentences that told me it happened. I can understand how it could happen; maybe Aethelbald is a medieval version of Ted Bundy. (Spoiler!) Think how much more shocking his murder of the old woman would be if we the readers, like Judith, had fallen a bit under his spell by being able to see his charm in action.

Some of the same problem bothered me with the relationship between Judith and Baudoin. Before her marriage to Aethelwulf, she sees Baudoin twice, I think, and doesn't have any conversation with him at all. (Another spoiler!) But when he comes to rescue her from Aethelbald, they are in love. Leighton wants me to buy into "love at first sight." As a teenager reading the book, I did; thirty years later, I'm more skeptical. I would like to have seen a couple of scenes where they had the opportunity to talk to each other and to develop some basis for their love other than just physical appearance. Leighton does a great job, though, of putting flesh on the historical skeleton of Baudoin; even thirty years later, I'm in love with him myself, ha ha ha!

To sum it all up, Judith of France gives insight into what could have been the reality behind the cold historical fact. It's a real shame this book is out of print and, I'm sure, on the "discarded" list for most libraries.

Monday, April 7, 2008

How Far Am I Willing to Suspend My Disbelief?

The good news is - I finally broke out of my slump! My kids were at a skating party for a friend's birthday, and I was totally unsociable. I read the whole time. Part of that is because I didn't know the other kids' parents, but the main reason is I was just so caught up in the story -- Pirates! by Celia Rees. It was a gripping adventure with a deliciously creepy villain and a honorable, faithful love interest. There was enough history to satisfy the historical fiction nerd in me. But........

As I thought about the story the next day, I saw some places where the author seems to have expected me to just "go with it" and not think too much. Now, I learned in "Introduction to Literature" as a college freshman that a part of engaging a story is being willing to suspend your disbelief. After all, a story is NOT life, and some things have to be manipulated to make it work as a story. But I felt this particular story asked me to give the author a little more liberty than I really should have had to.

(There are probably some spoilers below)

I had no problem suspending reality to "believe" the ruby necklace had some kind of magical link that allowed the Brazilian to track Nancy for more than a year. Actually, I was quite satisfied with the author's explanation for why he bothered to do that when most men would just cut their losses and find some other 16-year-old to marry. Being so creepy, the Brazilian would of course be driven by a desire for revenge. And I really liked the imagery of the necklace as a collar or choke-chain on Nancy. It was the perfect metaphor for what her life with the Brazilian would be like.

However, I found the romance with William unrealistic. I know they grew up together, but I couldn't see how they would have developed a devotion to each other that would lead them to pledge undying romantic love for each other. I think part of my problem with it was that William was only 12 and Nancy was only 10 when his father sent him to sea. I know people matured faster in those days than these, but I don't see children of those ages being that aware of choosing a mate. Yes, Nancy saw William two other times after he had started his career as a sailor, but would that really be enough to build a commitment that would last through the impossible circumstances they are up against? Wouldn't William, especially, just consign Nancy to the realms of memory and go on to marry some other respectable young woman? It all just seemed a little too easy -- William was always faithful. That relationship just didn't get much development.

I'm sure the reason it didn't is because this story wasn't really about Nancy's love for William; it was about Nancy's relationship with Minerva, her mulatto half-sister. And I'm ok with that. It was actually sort of refreshing to have something other than a romantic relationship as the major plot line. But that leads me to another idea that I couldn't quite buy. Minerva is supposed to be younger than Nancy. How much younger is never really specified. But we know that Nancy's father left shortly after she was born to go to his plantation in Jamaica. Even if we assume that he almost immediately started his affair with Minerva's mother, that means Minerva would be at least a year younger than Nancy. That means she's 14 or 15 during the events of the story. The problem I have with this is that Minerva never fails to be poised or brave or to know exactly what needs to be done. Ok, maybe it's because she's been a slave and she had to develop those qualities to survive, and maybe it's because being a Dahomey woman warrior is in her blood -- but it just seemed unrealistic to me.

But the thing that bothered me most was something really small (aren't those always the worst?!!). When Nancy shoots the overseer, she is still wearing the dress she wore at the dinner party at the Brazilian's house. The author makes a point of telling us about the amount of blood and other matter that was scattered around the room after the shot. The slaves go in and dispose of the body and clean everything up so Nancy and Minerva can get away. But then at the climax of the book when the Brazilian has caught up with them -- he has the same dress for her to wear, just like he's recreating the moment more than a year ago. WAIT!!!! Number 1, that dress would have been ruined by blood spray, etc. from the gunshot. Number 2, the slaves would have burned it or something to get rid of any evidence. There's no way that I can believe that the dress would have been in any condition to be used in the Brazilian's little revenge fantasy.

All that said, I still enjoyed the book. It was a great "escape" novel, and it made me think about what life must have been like for slaves and women (completely under the power of men) during that time. (Maybe I'll write about that another time.) And it got me out of the slump -- I've already started on my next book.