There is a new historical fiction author on the scene! Christy English burst on to the historical fiction scene with her debut novel, “The Queen’s Pawn” about the complicated relationship between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alais of France. The novel is a fresh and interesting take on Eleanor of Aquitaine as a person, her relationship with her surrogate daughter, Alais of France who became involved with her husband, King Henry II, and the love she had for her son, Richard. English’s next novel will be entitled “To Be Queen” which focuses on Eleanor of Aquitaine’s first marriage to King Louis VII of France. It will be available in April 2011.
Why is your interest on Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets of the 12th century? What draws you to them?
English: I am drawn to Eleanor and Henry, Richard and Alais because they are truly larger than life. When exploring this period, I was astounded at the fact that the most colorful aspects of the story did not have to be made up. Alais really was the child of Eleanor’s first husband. And she was engaged to Richard the Lionhearted who never married her. And as far as we know, in spite of being Richard’s betrothed, Alais became Henry II’s mistress and had at least one child by him. The most wonderful thing about these people is the range of the actions they took, and the astounding breadth and depth of their personalities.
How did you come up with telling the story of Eleanor Aquitaine and her rival/surrogate daughter Alais of France in “The Queen’s Pawn”?
English: Originally, THE QUEEN’S PAWN was told completely from Alais’ point of view. When my editor and I sat down and discussed it, though, we both came to the conclusion that the novel needed more depth, and a sharper political edge. Including Eleanor’s point of view really opened the novel up.
What do you believe were strengths and flaws to Eleanor of Aquitaine as a person?
English: Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman ahead of her time. She was a politician first, and everything else second. This means that her husbands, her children, and all emotional ties were secondary to the necessity of maintaining her power. It is easy for us to judge Eleanor harshly, as many of her contemporaries did, but I admire this woman whole-heartedly. She loved Henry and she loved her children, but she would have sacrificed any and all of them to retain her power as queen. When a man acts out of political necessity, he is seen as a tough-minded hero. When a woman acts out of political necessity, she is perceived automatically as a bad person. I simply do not agree with this. Eleanor was an amazing woman who did what she had to do.
What do you believe were strengths and flaws to Alais of France as a person?
English: Alais is an innately sweet girl who tries her hand at being a power player and fails. She simply does not have the political savvy to stay in the ring with the likes of Eleanor and Henry, but then, very few could do that. They were two of the most brilliant politicians of their time. Alais is out of her depth in THE QUEEN’S PAWN almost from the first, but she is brave in facing the challenges that come to her, and she tries to take her life into her own hands and make her own choices. She makes a gambit for power that ultimately fails, but in trying, she shows herself to be Eleanor’s daughter.
What drew King Henry II of England to Alais? What was so alluring about her that he hurt not only his wife, but his son, Prince Richard who was betrothed to her?
English: Alais was not the first woman Henry took as mistress, nor would she be the last. In my novel, hurting Eleanor and Richard would actually be an advantage for Henry in bedding Alais. Though the events in the novel suggest that by causing that particular rift, Henry got more political problems than he bargained for. As far as Alais’ charms, she was beautiful, but she also had a certain naiveté and sweetness which drew Henry to her. He was older by the time he met her, and ready not to be challenged at every turn by the women he was sleeping with. I have no doubt that Alais was not the only sweet young thing Henry was drawn to, though in my novel, he did love her as much as he was capable of loving an innocent child, which she essentially was.
How would you describe the relationship between King Henry and Eleanor in the later stages of their marriage?
English: Electric. Combative. Brutal. A political take-no-prisoners stand off that resulted finally in open warfare and Eleanor locked away for the rest of Henry’s reign.
How would you describe the relationship between King Henry and Alais?
English: A love affair of political convenience for both of them. An indulgence of lust. And for Alais, a major mistake that affected the rest of her life, just as Henry said it would the moment before he took her to bed.
Do you believe Richard truly loved Alais or did he just see the value in possibly marrying her?
English: One of the premises of THE QUEEN’S PAWN is that Richard and Alais truly loved each other, and were torn apart by politics. Alais was a valuable bride, but THE QUEEN’S PAWN begins as a love story between these two young people who are no match for the politics going on around them. In the realms of power, love does not exist.
How would you describe the bond between Eleanor and Alais?
English: Eleanor and Alais love each other. Alais never knew her own mother, and Eleanor takes on that role for her. But by the same token, Alais fulfills a need in Eleanor that is not being met by her own daughters. Alais is always a pawn in the constant game of chess that Eleanor plays with Henry, but Eleanor still loves her. It is a complicated relationship that in the end allows for redemption for both women. They both lose politically in THE QUEEN’S PAWN, but by the end of the novel, they have regained each other.
Your next novel is “To Be Queen” due out in April 2011. What is it going to be about?
English: TO BE QUEEN is about Eleanor’s first marriage to Alais’ father, King Louis VII of France. Eleanor brokers her own marriage at the age of fifteen, goes on Crusade with her husband at twenty-five, and divorces King Louis the year she turns thirty. Eleanor was a power house. She lived four lifetimes in the time it takes most people to live one.
What other areas of history and times periods would you like to write about in future novels?
English: I have always been fascinated by the Black Death. I am batting around ideas for a novel at least partially set in that time period. I hope the ideas gel, so that I can get that novel written.
Where have you traveled in inspiration and research for your novels and future novels?
English: I have been fortunate enough to travel to London and Paris, but I hope someday to go to Poitiers and Bordeaux, both cities in France that had a huge influence on Eleanor’s development, places she called home.
What other historical fiction authors do you admire or enjoy? What authors from the past and present do you enjoy or have inspired you?
English: I love Sharon Kay Penman and Mary Renault. Both are masterful authors of historical fiction whose work showed me that there are a million different ways to write about history and the people who made it.
In conclusion, are you more of a fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine or Alais of France?
English: I love both of these women. But Eleanor is the woman who fascinates me most. It’s why I’ve written two books about her, and why I hope to write another novel about her in the future. Eleanor is the kind of character who just does not let you go.
*A huge thanks to Christy English for this lovely interview*
“To Be Queen” will be available in April 2011.
For more information on Christy English: http://www.christyenglish.com/