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.

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