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.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot