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Tuesday Book: A feisty heroine, but little spice in the telling

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir (Jonathan Cape, pounds 20)

ELEANOR OF Aquitaine (1122-1204) was one of the greatest heiresses of the Middle Ages. The headstrong and beautiful daughter of the famously cultured and notoriously sensual Duke William IX of Aquitaine, she was 15 when she married her first husband, the shy and scholarly Louis VII of France, who "loved her beyond reason." Eleanor was less enamoured, and at the age of 31 arranged an annulment. She abandoned Louis and her two daughters in favour of the formidably forceful Henry of Normandy, heir to the throne of England and 12 years her junior.

Her own lands extended rather further than those of either of her husbands, and she ruled them with assurance and competence. She rode by Louis's side on the Second Crusade to Jerusalem, dressed as an Amazon with cherry- red leather boots, and gave her second husband Henry II a turbulent family of quarrelsome children, among them Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John. Despite a decade or more of imprisonment when she became estranged from Henry following Thomas a Becket's martyrdom, she returned to the hub of power after Henry's death, and remained there until her late seventies.

Myths and half-truths surround her name. She was a ravishingly beautiful redhead; she was scintillatingly intelligent; she had numberless paramours, including Saladin; she held Courts of Love at which she made judgements on gay troubadours and gallant knights; she inspired Chretien de Troyes' description of Guinevere; she murdered her husband Henry II's mistress Rosamund Clifford by roasting her over a fire with a pair of venomous toads on her breasts; she spent a lot of time and money on the Abbey of Fontrevault, a highly civilised blend of women's university, arts centre, publishing house and sanctuary for battered wives.

With a central character of this nature, a quartet of vicious, violent and sexually predatory sons, and a spread of history that includes the martyrdom of Becket, Richard I's march on Jerusalem, King John and Robin Hood, we might hope for a juicy, illuminating historical read along the lines of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. But Weir goes for facts without the frills, adopting a distinctly puritanical approach to her admittedly far from reliable sources. Time and again we get an enticing glimpse of what Eleanor might have been up to, only to have the lid of surmise banged sharply shut because Weir feels that the evidence is inadequate.

This is scholarly, but it feels rather ungenerous. The book would be much more fun to read if it were well laced with the evidently colourful contemporary material, and we were left to make up our own minds. On the few occasions that we do get long extracts from the chronicles, the book picks up its skirts and runs. But most of the time the prose progresses carefully and cautiously. We long for Weir to fly a kite, or at least to say what she herself thinks of her heroine.

Because there is often no evidence for Eleanor's whereabouts, there are substantial parts of the book in which she is invisible. What Weir does to fill these gaps is to continue the chronological narrative. Admittedly, the constant warring and whoring of Henry II and his sons has considerable shock value. I found it fascinating to discover that my childhood idol Richard the Lionheart was just as beastly as his famously bad brother John that he spent only 10 months in England and preferred the culture and language of Aquitaine. England was merely a milch cow, rather than the jewel in the crown of his domains.

But this is meant to be a biography of Eleanor, not yet another history of the Angevin kings. And at times Weir seems almost wilfully to insist that Eleanor had no power, just because in legal theory her husband was her superior or because "women... played a subordinate role in medieval society."

An alternative and, I think, more appropriate approach to the patchy and incomplete history of this fearless and feisty woman would have been to fill the holes in her life with useful comparative information about other women in her story. There were the royal daughters and sisters who found themselves immured in such distant realms as Castile, Outremer and Sicily, the rejected wives and mistresses, and - above all - the independent- minded nuns of Fontrevault.