Book Review: Lady of the English

I have mentioned my penchant for medieval romance novels before.

Recently, I managed to overcome a long reading dry spell by picking up Elizabeth Chadwick’s Lady of the English.

Chadwick manages to craft the perfect cocktail in her work – enough historical fact and details that you are immersed but also that pinch of something a bit more spicy and sensational to spark your interest.

Lady of the English did exactly what I needed a historical romance to do.

Firstly, it engrossed me in the medieval world and did nothing too anachronistic to jolt me out of it.

I already knew the tale of Matilda (or Empress Maud, as my dad always referred to her) and had great respect for her as a historical figure. Yet Chadwick managed to still give me a sense of wonder as I read. Even though I knew very well the man that Matilda’s second marriage was to be to, there was still a romantic part of me that got all doe-eyed over the thwarted possibility of dalliances with Brian FitzCount.

The novel retells the history of the Anarchy. It begins with the death of Matilda’s first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor. It follows Matilda as she returns to England and her father King Henry I of England, who arranges a shocking second marriage for her to Geoffrey of Anjou. The main meat of the plot comes, as expected, when Henry I dies unexpectedly and the throne of England is usurped by Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois. Matilda gambles everything on her quest to reclaim her rightful throne.

Matilda is fierce and not entirely likeable. Her decisions are often lead more by her pride and less by her head. The emotional centre of the piece is Matilda’s step-mother, Adeliza. To me her character holds more interest as she progresses and evolves from the saintly wife of the King to a Dowager-Queen able, to an extent, to make her own decisions. The contrasts between the two women is a revealing lens with which to view them and a smart choice on the part of the author.

The novel eloquently addresses the problems of being a woman with power in the Middle Ages. The idea that women are believed to be weak but if they show strength they are betraying the natural order is hammered home. Yet, it is done tastefully and within the setting’s confines.

I appreciate the fact Chadwick is not just advocating all girls should grow the heart and stomach of a man.

Women such as Adeliza, whose passion is peace-making, motherhood and the church, or blunt Maude, who just wants to breed her hounds, look after her livestock and see her lands prosper, are presented as real people, not somehow lesser in their choices.

There are different ways to live your life, different ways to be a woman, and Chadwick shines a light on them all.

My only complaint is that Matilda’s relationship with Geoffrey felt a little off. Not quite enough time was given to grow the love/hate beyond mutual abuse and it felt more could have been explored. I had far more of an emotional reaction to Adeliza and Will’s heartfelt devotion. Although, of course, that was partly the point.

The boy who would grow up to be Henry II of England was a joy to read. Considering he only featured in the novel for a short time, his energy and personality came through with real flair. I thoroughly enjoyed him.

As with all Chadwick’s novels, I blazed through this in a very short time. The writing style is simple but always a persuasive page-turner.

After reading this novel, I wanted to go away and look up more about the characters to see what was fact and what was embellishment. For me, to be inspired like that is the highest praise I can offer for a historical piece.


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