This is the story of Alaïs, “forgotten princess of France”. One of the things HF (historical fiction) does best is to take a minor, mostly ignored and almost forgotten historical character and recreate him or her, rather as a paleontologist recreates a long extinct animal from a fragment of fossilised bone.
I first noticed Alaïs in the film The Lion In Winter, where she is portrayed (by the beautiful Jane Merrow) as very much Henry II’s mistress, the king flaunting the lovely girl in front of his ageing queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But is that how it really was?
On this reconstruction of Alaïs’ story we have an older Alaïs, Alaïs afterwards, in the days of Bad King John, when Henry has long been dead and Richard is dead and Eleanor at 78 years old is on her last legs. The story revolves around some letters said to have been written by Eleanor years earlier while she was a prisoner in Shrewsbury. Henry, who was trying to prevent her from plotting with Richard, their son, to replace him on the throne, did not allow her to correspond with anyone, so her letters had to be smuggled out. Some were eventually concealed in Canterbury Cathedral and it is those which she is worried might compromise both herself and John, and which she asks Alaïs to retrieve and return to her. So Alaïs makes the journey from Paris to Canterbury, ostensibly as a pilgrim.
In Canterbury she is kidnapped and the excitement starts. Who has she been kidnapped by, and why? King John? Dowager Queen Eleanor, having lured her there for that purpose? The Knights Templar, for their own devious purposes? And what on earth could have been in those letters?
It is rare for me to be hooked from the first page, but I was here.
For a first novel, it is stunning. Look at her depiction of the Dialogue between “that old pair of inseparables, the Body and the Soul“, where the Body “had all the witty lines, some I suspect made up on the spot … [it is Alaïs narrating] No wonder the bishops railed against the theatre. Laughter was probably the greatest danger to orthodoxy.” Or her description of Eleanor in old age, and her comments on arranged marriages … “Although she was standing upright with no help, she looked so brittle I thought her bones might break before we got to a greeting […] As I approached, she held out her hand for me to kiss. It was freckled with age spots, clearly visible in the sun, which at just that moment decided to spread out like butter over us all. […] ‘Queen Eleanor.’ I bent low.’Princess Alaïs,’ she responded, as if we had parted on that day after breakfast.” They speak of the future (and think of the past), of Eleanor’s granddaughter Blanche of Castile, who is to marry Alaïs’ nephew, the heir to the French throne. “‘Blanche is safely installed at the court of your brother [Eleanor tells Alaïs] and the two children seem to like each other. It may be a marriage more successful than many that have been arranged by politics.’ And I knew she was thinking past me, to that time when she was married to my father because their fathers had decreed it. But then, I recalled, she later married Henry for love, and that didn’t work out too well either.”
It is all wonderful stuff, and this is (for me at least, and I suspect for all who read this book) the definitive Princess Alaïs.