Devices and Desires and my problem with AU
I’ve read four more books this month. It hasn’t felt like that many, but one was in process, another was an audiobook, and a third was a reread from way back. So only one book really felt like a slog, and unfortunately it was the one I was looking forward to. I read and enjoyed Pamela Sherwood’s novella, The Advent of Lady Madeline, and Janine and SonomaLass both really liked the full-length novel that follows it, Devices and Desires, so I decided to try it even though I had mixed feelings about the sample. The novel was written before the novella and is modelled on the film A Lion in Winter (the author’s notes in both the novella and the novel are explict about that, calling it a “retelling”). The film, of course, is the film version of a play which fictionalizes the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their relationships with their children at a specific point in time. So you have a three-steps removed retelling of a famous historical relationship about which our information is decent but far from definitive, given that they lived in the 12thC. Moreover, the characters in the film are embodied by famous actors, who become fused with the characters themselves in our understanding of the latter.
I’m laying all this out because as I was reading I was experiencing the text at a variety of levels:
- as a genre romance with a central relationship embedded within a family saga;
- as an AU (Alternate Universe) version of real people as well as of a specific film version of those people;
- and as a story set within a specific historical context, i.e., a ducal castle in Yorkshire, England in Christmas of 1888.
I had mixed feelings about the sample because the types of anachronisms I had observed in the novella seemed to be cropping up here as well, and on top of that I wondered about a couple of more substantive logic issues in the story. Gervase, our hero, rejects being a barrister and instead decides to become a solicitor because he doesn’t want to be dependent on either his father or other people for his income. But to be a solicitor requires three to five years of being an articled clerk to a solicitor (something the text notes), which the clerk not only has to pay for (to the tune of hundreds of pounds), but during that time he is not remunerated, or at least not enough to live on. So who is supporting Gervase while he qualifies?
Second, we are told that in the eight years between the prologue (when Gervase is in his last year at Oxford) and the first chapter, Gervase becomes one of the “top solicitors in London” and has his own firm with someone who does not appear to be the solicitor to whom he was articled. This seems … unlikely? Why would a solicitor take on a Duke’s son and then let him walk away to become a successful competitor? And doesn’t doing that put Gervase in something of a bad light? Perhaps this was standard procedure for solicitors in the late 19thC, but given the tight networks within the profession and the self-governance they had achieved by then, it seems odd to me.
The story really begins when Gervase travels to his family home in Yorkshire with Margaret, Lady Bellamy; they’ve both been invited for Christmas by Gervase’s father, the Duke of Whitborough. Margaret and Gervase were childhood friends and Margaret was engaged to Hugh, Gervase’s eldest brother, until Hugh’s death in a riding accident. She soon after married the somewhat older Lord Bellamy and they were very happy together until he died of an illness after about five years of marriage. Margaret is worried about how the Duke and Duchess will receive her, but since her sister Alicia is engaged to the current heir, Gervase’s brother Reginald, and her brother Augustus is also planning to be there, she decides to go.
If you know the film, then you’ll immediately recognize the Duke as Henry II/Peter O’Toole and the Duchess as Eleanor/Katharine Hepburn. The characters in the novel reflect the actors’ portrayals and are somewhat underwritten; we are supposed to find the Duke charismatic and powerful and the Duchess beautiful and equally charismatic, but this is implied rather than shown.
As for the children, Gervase=Geoffrey, Reg=Richard, Jason=John, Alicia=Alais, and August=Philip II.
Margaret is an all-new character. [ETA: Oops, that is wrong, wrong, wrong. Margaret, as the author’s note tells the reader, is based on Margaret/Marguerite of Vexin, who was betrothed to Henry II when they were both children.] Unlike the film, there is no relationship between Alicia and the Duke, although the Duke’s long relationship with a now-deceased mistress poisoned his marriage (the Duchess is merely abroad a lot in this story, not imprisoned as in the film and in history).
I could go on at length about the context, but I’m already going on enough and I’m nowhere near done (I haven’t even talked about the relationships and romance yet). My basic problem was that the backstories and setting were either assumed or underwritten or both. You can’t just stick 12thC people in the late 19thC and have them work the same way. Often when the conflicts in the book mirror the conflicts in the film, they don’t make much sense. For example, Augustus (like Philip) hates the Duke (Henry) because of the way the latter repeatedly bested Augustus’ late father. In the 12thC this had to do with battles, conquest, etc. In the book it is rendered as getting the best of him in business. But there is nothing that shows the Duke as engaging in business. There are no industrial types, no industries, just vague references to business. Augustus, frankly, comes off as a petty little brat, which Timothy Dalton (who played Philip II in the film) did not. The former is just not sufficiently motivated in his actions.
The entire setting is sketchily drawn. Part of this is because we’re at a house party at a castle. But even at other times the context was lacking. The train journey from London to York is critical to the development of Gervase and Margaret’s romance, but it felt to me as if as much time was spent on describing the furnishings as on the characters. And there are almost no servants present, throughout the story. A private train car; a castle; presumably large estates, and almost no support staff observed. I think I counted three named servants. Perhaps this is a consequence of following the way the film foregrounded the family, but it feels odd in the novel, especially since one of the requests the Duke makes of Gervase would be something his own solicitor or man of affairs could discover. It makes the tension between them feel manufactured rather than organic.
The characters themselves feel much more like members of the bourgeoisie than the aristocracy. Despite the fact that every major character is titled (and the majority are part of ducal families), there is repeated emphasis on how prosperous and cultured people are in terms of their appearance and behavior. Generally, people with inherited wealth don’t remark on how rich other wealthy people look unless there is something unusual going on; looking rich was, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, part of being rich. It was a given. And everyone in this story is not only part of the aristocracy and gentry, they’re described as being very well off.
In addition, the tension among the brothers and between the parents and their children loses a lot of gravitas when we’re not talking about kingdoms and crowns at stake, and we’re no longer in the period before primogeniture was fully established in England. It feels even more petty and mean-spirited, since it’s not entirely clear what is at stake and why the parents are choosing sides (in the original the reasons made some sense). If the Duke cared that much about the succession, for example, why wouldn’t he make sure Surviving Son #2 was marrying someone who was likely to produce heirs?
But, assuming you’re still reading, you’re probably asking, what about the romance? We don’t read historical romance for verisimilitude, especially these days; and we’ve always read above all for the romance. The romance between Gervase and Margaret is quite sweet. As Janine notes in her review at Dear Author, it’s a friends-to-lovers story and we get plenty of POV scenes and internal thoughts from both Margaret and Gervase. They go from friends to lovers in the first half of the book, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it feels like a natural progression for them, but it’s bad because there is still half the book to go. So we wind up with lots and lots of family saga stuff and a sudden conflict about 3/4 of the way through, which is resolved by a blinding flash of insight after a crisis. Not my favorite approach, but given the alternative was to have the relationship be fully resolved halfway through the book, not surprising.
The relationship between the Duke and Duchess was pretty unsatisfying. It’s one thing to hate each other because of adultery, or something in their history, but to take that out on their children wasn’t nearly well enough grounded. As I said before, it makes sense if you’re jockeying for sovereignty, but the stakes are just a lot lower here, at least so far as I can tell. Neither comes across as sympathetic, much less honorable. But perhaps my problem is that I just don’t see the Henry and Eleanor characters as hero/heroine material. They’re fascinating, brilliant, imperious, etc., and as played by O’Toole and Hepburn they’re pretty irresistible. But they’re not admirable, or honorable, or even decent, really, and you need that for romantic leads. I don’t have much hope that I will find them sufficiently redeemed in their own stories.
Finally, the aspect of the book that made me almost DNF it several times, except that I wanted to see if it got better at the end: the engagement of Reg and Alicia. If you know the film, or if you’ve just seen the trailer, you know that Richard has a Big Secret and that secret is that he is attracted to men. Well, that’s Reg’s secret too, but it’s not just that. It’s apparently that not only is he attracted to men, he can’t possibly marry a woman. Never mind that the actual Richard the Lionheart fathered at least one out-of-wedlock child and the evidence on his homosexuality is decidedly mixed (historians today consider him to be either bisexual or heterosexual). In this story, Reg is revolted by the idea of sleeping with a woman. Yes, Reg is the heir apparent, but he couldn’t care less about his duty to the line. Women, ICK.
Why? Why did we need this plot twist? Margaret, for no reason I could discern, assumed early in the storyline that because she had seen Reg with a man a decade or so ago (i.e., when Reg was quite young), he wasn’t a fit husband for Alicia. This perception is later reinforced by Reg’s revulsion at Alicia’s advances toward him. Nowhere is there ever the possibility given in the text that Reg might be bisexual.
So, not only does the storyline and the characterization turn Reg into a nasty piece of work (although we get a sense of his inner turmoil toward the end of the book), it dances perilously close to a Gay Villain trope, and it erases the possibility of bisexuality where it well might have existed in history. Now, this may be faithful to the movie, I don’t remember well enough. But if you’re going to jettison the storyline about Henry and Alais’ relationship (presumably because an adulterer who sleeps with his heir’s intended wife is definitely not Hero Material and Henry/Whitborough is up next in the series), you can certainly make Reg a far more nuanced and believable character.
So, my problem with AU retellings? Unless you can really make the characters fit the alternate setting, they’re going to be caught between the two worlds and lack conviction. Some writers can pull off AUs well, but when they do it’s because either they’re following through on an interesting idea (beyond relocating the characters temporally or spatially), or because the author can just flat out write a story. Neither of those things happened here, at least not for me.
Here we have a 12thC king and queen who are transplanted into the heyday of the British Empire. But in this new time period they display no political interests whatsoever. Just fights about parcels of land, when half the world is available for official plunder. At least let Whitborough sit in the Lords and have some fun with it, and have the Duchess play drawing-room power games. That would be true to the original characters and true to the times.
In checking stuff for this post I ran across a couple of posts on the movie by a medieval historian who also loves the film and talks about the characterizations, including Richard, here and here. He gets at the way the movie combines contemporary and historical interests and why it works for so many people.
Well, I had been dithering about reading the book, but I had qualms when I learned what/who it was based on. Thanks for saving me a few hours. I am afraid I would have reacted as you did.
I have no problem with the idea of re-telling or re-imagining fairy tales or folklore or myths. However, real, historically significant people? That gets a lot trickier, as you pointed out.
Now i shall be just evil and suggest that you read Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful series of books on Eleanor and Henry–“When Christ and His Saints Slept”, “Time and Chance and “Devil’s Brood”. So what that each runs about 600 pages…Absolutely fascinating reading. Penman is a great storyteller and her research is thorough.
Or you could just re-watch ‘Becket’ (which has a different actress as Eleanor, but the bonus of Richard Burton as Becket) and ‘The Lion in Winter’.
I have the first in that trilogy by Penman, and I really enjoyed the Welsh trilogy when I read it years ago. I should move the Henry & Eleanor book up in the TBR.
Thank you for reading my overly long post; you should see all the stuff I left out. 🙂 Writing it helped me understand what does and doesn’t work for me in these retellings (and there seem to be more of them these days). I think a big problem was my own ping-ponging between what I knew of the historical figures and what I remembered from the film. I kept trying to make sense of what wasn’t on the page and having to think about whether it was Peter O’Toole or Henry kept taking me out of the story.
I liked the main couple quite a bit, just as I liked the main couple in the novella. I think Sherwood writes appealing original characters.
I’ve already put this film, Becket, and A Man For All Seasons (just for completeness) on my wishlist at Amazon. 🙂 I haven’t seen any of them in *decades*, so it will be fun to revisit them. I love Peter O’Toole so much. Didn’t you remind me I should watch Lord Jim again, too? If so, you are oh so correct. 🙂
I could easily be the one who mentioned O’Toole’s “Lord Jim”–well worth a re-watch.
I must confess that I pictured Peter O’Toole as Henry II in all of Ariana Franklin’s mysteries featuring Adelia, the forensic doctor. Who am I kidding–if Henry II shows up in a book, he looks and sounds like Peter O’Toole for me.
You did hit upon one of my small discomforts–the disconnect between how old the character is and their degree of success in their chosen field. Contemporary authors are more likely to attribute a degree of success (say, reputation in a professional field) to an age (26? really?) that’s about 5-10 years too young, realistically. I don’t see that too often in historicals, but I certainly would have done the ‘oh, really…’ at Gervase’s rapid advancement.
I have been meaning to read this, and I still might because I have never seen Lion in Winter (despite many opportunities in my years at Hepburn’s alma mater). I wonder how it would be for a reader who didn’t have that context–the lack of detail/plot illogic might seem like the kind of thing that plagues so many books rather than specific to the AU context, and I wouldn’t always be haunted by comparison.
I agree in general that this kind of retelling can cause gaps, maybe problems that come with shifting the context that the author can’t figure out how to solve. Done right, I find them fascinating. But doing them really right is hard and often requires a willingness to depart from or cut elements of the source that don’t make sense in a new context. With a few exceptions–like Clueless, which I love–I think they work best with fairy tales and other stories from oral tradition which have always been reworked and reimagined by their tellers.
When I was a kid I loved A Proud Tale of Scarlet and Miniver, about Eleanor, but I don’t remember a thing about it. I should see if I can find a copy!
I think you’re right about the book working better for readers who haven’t seen the movie or don’t remember the performances and plot that well. The missing bits will resemble flaws in other books, rather than being integral to this particular story, if you know what I mean. And the central romance is appealing, as I said. My other problem was that I didn’t find the writing as strong as Janine did, so the Americanisms and anachronistic phrases jumped out to me more.
I was thinking of Clueless and Wide Sargasso Sea when I wrote the post; very different retellings but both interesting and/or successful in their own ways. But in both you can see *why* they are undertaking the project, and in Clueless the updated setting is a new (and pitch-perfect) character in its own right. On the other hand, Sittenfeld’s rewrite of P&P didn’t work at all for me because while I bought the setting, I didn’t buy the way she updated the characters and relationships. Other people did, though.
I think the fact that this story had *two* fathers, so to speak (or rather three if you count the play) makes it difficult to pull off as well. Pauline Kael criticized the film (not everyone loved it when it came out) on the grounds that Hepburn was appealing to our love for *her*, not helping us understand the character (I’m paraphrasing), and that disconnect, between the characters and the actors’ portrayals creates bigger problems for a novel than for the original performance. I don’t care if Peter O’Toole isn’t the real Henry, I’m there for Peter O’Toole as much as the character he’s playing. But the novel is both appealing to my love for O’Toole and telling a story that is separate from his portrayal.
” Unless you can really make the characters fit the alternate setting, they’re going to be caught between the two worlds and lack conviction.”
Exactly so. And that’s the fun of writing them. Doing it badly isn’t fun at all, for anyone.
I think it’s really hard to hit the middle ground between something that’s essentially for you and fans of a particular movie, book, etc. and something that builds on that foundation but offers a rewarding experience for people who aren’t fans of the source material. It’s harder than it looks, or at least reading this makes me understand how many ways there are to not quite pull it off.
I’m sorry this recommendation didn’t pan out for you. At least you got a great post out of it!
I hadn’t realized that quite so much of the plot was borrowed from The Lion in Winter, since I hadn’t seen the film. You’re probably right about the book working better for readers who haven’t seen the movie.
I also felt that Margaret was being unfair to Reg, to assume he would be a terrible husband for Alicia on the basis of having seen him with his male lover once. I wish there had been another character to voice a contrary view, because as you say, her view is hardly flattering to Reg’s character, and that is problematic.
Still, I read Margaret’s view as partly due to her bad experience with having been engaged to Reg’s brother, Hal, who viewed her more as a sister than as a romantic partner, while she was in love with him. Alicia was similarly in love with Reg, and Margaret had experienced unrequited love firsthand.
With regard to Reg, I didn’t view him as villainous though I think Sherwood could have done more with his character. I found his backstory affecting. Even his competitiveness with Hal and his not knowing to do with it after Hal’s death was interesting to me, since I rarely see that kind of thing portrayed in a romance. Now, though, I wonder how much of that was taken from the movie.
I read the book in mid-July and can’t recall anymore how much of Reg’s aversion to Alicia I put down to an aversion to women in general and how much of it I saw as situational. But I know I saw some of it as being based on having not chosen her but rather having had her crammed down his throat by his father.
I also read Alicia’s pursuit of Reg as unintentionally exacerbating his feeling of having been trapped; that by trying to convince him to marry her already, she unwittingly made his resistance stronger.
I got the feeling too, that Reg was not completely opposed to the idea of marrying and having children at some point in the future, but that he wanted to do it on his own terms, with a partner of his own choosing, who would know what she was getting into.
I agree that the first half was stronger than the second, but for me even the family drama in the second half was interesting because it served if not as an actual romantic conflict than at least as a potential one, something that could come between Gervase and Margaret if they (Gervase especially) didn’t navigate it carefully.
The moment when Gervase decided to take Margaret’s advice on how to handle it was very satisfying to me.
I found the family dysfunction in this book and in The Advent of Lady Madeline kind of exciting as a reader, because in romance, you usually have either the family where everyone is happy, attractive, successful, and gets along well, or you have the really abusive parental figure (often a step-parent) whose actions haunt the hero. This was something in the middle and while it wasn’t developed as fully as it could have been, it felt fresh to me when I read it. Now, though, I wonder how much of it was taken from the movie.
I wonder the same thing about Hal’s death, an event that totally surprised me. When I read the novella, I thought Hal was being set up for his own book (I would happily have read one about him), so when I read of his death in the novel, it seemed fresh and unexpected. But maybe not to viewers of the film?
As you can probably tell, I was so caught up in Gervase and Margaret’s romance that I didn’t very often ask myself what material was from the movie and what material was original while I was reading. If I had, I would have probably found it distracting. I’ve had that experience with literary fiction where a character is named after the author — I wonder how much of the book comes from the author’s imagination, and how much from something that happened IRL.
I also have trepidation about Harold and Helene’s story. I don’t know if Sherwood can get me past the way they treated their children (bad parenting is one of the hardest traits for me to forgive in a romance protagonist) and I’m a little surprised she even wants to try. She usually writes such (emotionally) mature characters, and these two don’t fit that profile.
I’m not at all sorry I read it; working through my frustrations was an illuminating exercise, so I still appreciate your recommendation!
I made a mistake in the post (I’ve corrected it now) in saying Margaret was a new character. She’s a historical figure who wasn’t in the film. Hal’s death is recorded in history and precipitates the events in the film/play, at least that’s the way the playwright motivated the story. That’s part of what was confusing to me; there are things in the play that depart from history and things in history that are not in the play. So there are so many levels on which the retelling is working, it gets confusing, or at least it did for me. I didn’t think about Hal being likely to die when I read the novella, but given the author’s note it wasn’t surprising to me. I haven’t rewatched the film, but I looked at some clips, and the novel tracks quite a bit with it. And Sherwood dedicates the book to the actors in the film.
As far as the Reg-Alicia storyline goes, that seems to me to be much more closely aligned with the play than with the historical record. The idea that Richard was homosexual (and had a relationship with Philip II) comes from a 1948 historical analysis, which was probably what the play was working from. But reinterpretations of the same sources and alternate translations have made it seem much less likely that there was a physical relationship between them.
I agree Reg wasn’t a villain, but his behavior is pretty bad, and I didn’t see the textual evidence you did that it was about Alicia per se rather than a more general aversion to physical intimacy with a woman. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to that implication, but it’s been such a common stereotype and I really don’t want to see it returning. Of course there are men who are averse, but giving that quality to Reg (or being unclear about the feelings motivating his actions) was anti-historical and unnecessary. Similarly with Margaret jumping to conclusions; she could have wondered if he would be as uninterested as Hal was toward her, rather than immediately thinking he would be awful. Reg and Hal weren’t the same person, after all.
If you haven’t seen the film then I can see how the book would seem fresh, although it still has the flaws I talked about in terms of transferring the characters to the 19thC, in my opinion. I think to make the Duke/Duchess story a convincing romance, the characters are going to have to become their own people. Because the Henry and Elinor of the film, while deeply compelling, are not romance-genre types, at least not to me.
I agree that Reg’s behavior was pretty bad. He was certainly not a heroic character, but a shades-of-gray figure. I don’t think it would have taken that much more work to make him sympathetic, given his father’s overbearing manipulations. Sherwood could have easily made him appealing enough to support a book about him.
With regard to Reg / Alicia, I didn’t mean to imply that there was no aversion to women whatsoever there, just that in my reading there was also, on top of that, aversion to Alicia who represented the trap his father was trying to spring on him. It’s hard for me to work out, when I think about Reg’s character, how much of his actions were due to the first and how much to the second. His character feels a little murky and contradictory.
(I thought he says he might marry someday, but maybe it’s another character who expresses such a hope? Six weeks out from reading it the details are getting fuzzy.)
I wonder how much of his murkiness tracks back to the different iterations of this story — the history, the play, the film, and this book.
I also feel that Madeline’s character comes across differently in this book than in the novella. She’s softer in the novella, and a little more pointed here. Part of that may be due to the fact that we see her through Gervase and Margaret’s eyes, but part of it may also be due to the author choosing the needs of the individual novel over consistency between different books in the series.
The latter makes me wonder if part of the reason she wrote Reg as she did and let Margaret’s reaction to him remain largely unquestioned by other characters was because she didn’t want to take away from Margaret’s character.
Sherwood could also have had Margaret wonder, as you say, instead of coming to such a strong conclusion, but then the idea that this marriage between Reg and Alicia could serve as a wedge between Margaret and Gervase might have been harder to sell. It is an experience one can come across while writing fiction, that sometimes fixing one thing introduces a new problem.
All of the above make me suspect that she’ll try to present the Duke and Duchess in a more positive light when it comes to their books, but I wonder if that will work for me. For me the closest thing this book had to a villain was the Duke. That scene where he gives Jason the horse (was that in the movie?) made me very angry with him, as did the scene where he tried to involve Gervase in his scheme.
I can think of few worse things than pitting your own children against each other, and since the second book about the parents will take place concurrently with this one, and some of the same events will therefore likely take place in that book too, I’m not sure how he can be made into a romance hero.
I went looking for reviews (besides yours at DA) of other books by Sherwood, and apparently her first novel was inspired by an Edith Wharton book that was left unfinished (The Buccaneers, which was also a TV series ages ago). I understand building on work that has influenced you, but I’m starting to think this is a feature, not a bug, with Sherwood’s approach. And writing so many stories in basically the same moment in time and same location limits how much she can develop the characters and setting, because the books are so tied to each other.
I just think that at this point she’s a not-for-me author. I can totally see how you and other readers whose opinion I value find a lot to like in her work, but she hits a bunch of my no-thank-you buttons.
I can see that. I sometimes overlook or miss some of the things that matter to you. That is easier to do when I love the romance and the main characters, as I did here.
I didn’t know about Sherwood’s first book being Wharton-inspired. I’m not sure what I think of that.
She’s very up-front about it, and from her old post at Dear Author it seems as if she draws inspiration from a number of sources for that book. I think this is pretty common now, and it was probably more common than we realized for older books (think of all the Heyeresque Regencies in the 1970s and 1980s). We just didn’t know as much about the authors or their writing processes back then.
All writers draw on sources of inspiration, I don’t necessarily mind that. But if a book draws mostly on one source, instead of a number of them, it can start to feel like a copy instead of something fresh. It sounds like that’s not the case with Waltz with a Stranger, though.
Re. the Heyeresque regencies — too true! When I read These Old Shades, it felt familiar rather than fresh, even though I had never read Heyer before, because it had been emulated so much.
I’ve seen the movie and read the play, and I think I even read that the Sherwood book was based on the movie, and yet I had completely forgotten that when I read the book, and it did not jump out at me. (Of course, I had to be told that the Narnia books were allegories, too.) I see some of the parallels now that you point them out (Helene’ s properties in France, for example), but nothing about those characters made me think of either O’Toole and Hepburne, or Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. And I certainly didn’t picture Anthony Hopkins as Gervase.
Maybe I should reread it, with The Lion in Winter in mind, but I think I’d rather reread one of my all time favorites, Red Adam’s Lady, in which Henry and his dysfunctional family don’t appear, yet are very much part of the plot.
I don’t know why the parallels jumped out at me; I didn’t read it with the intention of focusing on the things that didn’t work. Maybe it’s that because I read so much for context, the overall world of the story has to make sense to me in order for me to have an immersive experience (unless something else is so gripping that I overlook everything else). It’s not a film that has stuck in my mind, but I guess I knew more about Henry and Eleanor than I realized.
Oh, Hopkins was Richard, not Gervase/Geoffrey. But I didn’t see him in Reg either, not really.
I had forgotten about Red Adam’s Lady! Jayne has a really early review of that at Dear Author. It was fun to read it and the comments. Now I want to hunt it down, because while I *think* I’ve read it, i’m not completely sure.
Greetings from the Author!
I stumbled onto this discussion by accident, but have been following it with interest all the same. I am sorry that Devices & Desires didn’t work for you, Sunita, but I appreciate your taking the time to read it and offer such detailed commentary.
I would like to say, though, in my work’s defense, that it was never my intention to offer a straight-up rendering or even a rigorously faithful retelling of the Angevin Plantagenets’ complicated, often tragic story—mainly because I recognize the impossibility of such a thing. (And because Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick, among others, have both written some excellent treatments of the subject already). But there is no way that any updated historical setting would carry the same dramatic heft as the original. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s story plays out on a broader stage, and the stakes—nations, crowns, thrones—are immeasurably higher. Unless I turned my hand to mainstream historical fiction or biography, there was no way my vision would be on anything like the same scale. And admittedly, that wasn’t where my first interest lay.
Quite simply, I wrote Devices & Desires more as an affectionate homage to The Lion in Winter, which I’ve loved since I was a teen. And back then, before I had any idea of the magnitude of world events surrounding Henry, Eleanor, and their “Devil’s Brood,” I was drawn to the personalities and the twisted family dynamics of the characters. The estranged spouses who can’t live with or without each other; their screwed-up, hypercompetitive sons; and the tangle of love, hate, betrayal, rivalry, and perverse camaraderie that keeps them all inextricably bound to each other. That was mainly what I wanted to capture in The Lyons Pride—along with the “Christmas Court from Hell” atmosphere! (However fraught your holidays may be, be thankful that you’re not holed up in a snowbound castle with any of these people.)
So, there are a handful of scenes and occasional lines of dialogue in Devices & Desires that harken back to the film, but just as I can’t replicate the power of Henry and Eleanor’s historical narrative, neither can I duplicate James Goldman’s accomplishment. I can only write the story that’s in my heart and mind to the best of my ability, and hope that it finds an audience. So, to those who have read and enjoyed Devices & Desires and were kind enough to say so, thank you. And thank you as well to those who weren’t so enthralled, for giving the book a try. And if anyone is curious about specific ways in which I adhered to or departed from the original source material, please feel free to ask. 🙂
By the way, Sunita, have you read Susan Howatch’s historical novels? She’s written at least three of them that reimagine English royal history—with Penmarric being her take on the Angevins. And Barbara Taylor Bradford’s The Ravenscar Dynasty is a modern retelling of The Wars of the Roses. Though if you prefer to skip that trope in favor of straight-up medieval historicals, I heartily recommend Elizabeth Chadwick’s series about the Marshal family, as well as her ongoing trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Book #3, The Autumn Throne, is coming out this fall.
Thank you for your generous comment, Ms. Sherwood. My reaction to D&D is all about me, and plenty of readers have enjoyed it a great deal. My reaction to it helped me make sense of something that is ongoing for me, which is what I’m looking for when I read genre fiction (of all types) and the balance between my emotional and cognitive reading demands for any individual book.
As I said in the post and in comments, I think that being captivated by a film that was based on a historical family but that also took plenty of liberties with the record made it more likely that readers like me would get caught between the various representations. I really appreciate that you were so clear about what drew you to the story.
I read Susan Howatch many years ago, and I’ve enjoyed many of Chadwicks novels; I’ll have to check and see if I read this series. Thanks for the heads-up, I haven’t been keeping track and I do like her work.
I have a slight preference for Chadwick’s original historical romances over her straight historicals. Probably because the happiness of her main characters in the latter is inevitably circumscribed by birth and death dates that can’t be ignored. I do like being able to imagine Happy Ever After, as opposed to “Happy Only For X Number of Years.”
I like the straight historical a lot despite knowing the outcomes. We still get a richly textured view into their lives and surroundings. Penman and Pargeter’s Welsh trilogies have stayed with me over the years since I’ve read them, and Dunnett’s King Hereafter is phenomenal.
Edith Pargeter is another historical author worth celebrating, though I prefer her Heaven Tree trilogy to her Brothers of Gwynedd series, probably because I like 3rd person more than 1st person. As for Dunnett, I was impressed by King Hereafter, alternately entertained and annoyed by The House of Niccolo, and blown away by the Lymond Chronicles.