Tuesday, October 1, 2013

New Review: Georgette Heyer’s THE CONQUEROR: A Novel Of William the Conqueror, the Bastard Son Who Overpowered a Kingdom and The Woman Who Melted His Heart

Despite it's subtitle ("A Novel of William the Conqueror The Bastard Son Who Overpowered a Kingdom and the Woman who Melted His Heart"), sadly for us romance lovers, there is very little in this novel that relates to the relationship between William and his wife Matilda. Though there is a chapter devoted to his determined "conquering" of her (including his beating of her when at first she refused to marry him), it's not a love story nor a romance. The story begins in 1028 with William's birth and continues to his coronation Christmas Day 1066, though most of the book is taken up with the battles for and around Normandy.

William is portrayed as a hard man molded by his dubious beginnings, his relentless determination to have his will carried out and his ambition for the crown of England (ostensibly to secure Normandy's future). He was a brilliant strategist in war, which he was about most of his days, and he could be exceedingly cruel when it served his purposes. He valued courage and loyalty. In this story he says that Harold Godwinson is the only man he (William) respects. But that didn't stop William from using Harold, forcing him to give an oath of fealty (or face a gilded imprisonment in Normandy), the breaking of which he used against Harold to secure the Pope's backing for the planned invasion of England. The author does a good job of showing how William always served his own needs and any good he did for others was motivated by what it could gain him. Perhaps that is what it took to gain a country like England but the author suggests there was something lost in the man for the effort as echoed in the reservations uttered by the men who served him. For that, Heyer deserves full marks at bringing the real man to life.

The history presented here is interesting and entertaining, though I felt like I needed a dictionary, a map of France in the 1050s and 60s and a notepad for all the names and places thrown at me, particularly when so many men around William had the same first name. Such things also slowed down the reading of the tale in places and made it difficult at times to understand just what was going on or who the men were behind all those names.

In large part (perhaps the best part), this is the story of a friendship between one of William's closest knights, Raoul de Harcourt, a Saxon, and Edgar, who held lands under Harold Godwinson and who was the hostage of the Duke of Normandy. And, if there is a romance here, it's the love story between Raoul and Edgar's sister, Elfrida. Still, it's a worthy piece of historical fiction.

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