Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman writes epic historical novels that I love to sink into. (I have read 7 of her 15 to date, and she’s still writing, thank goodness!) It’s funny, but for me, what lasts about these books is not detail, but feeling. Individual characters, emotions, and relationships resonate, but I find I can retain almost nothing about the monarchies, battles, and power struggles – the real *history* – she has so meticulously researched. I’m resigned; this seems to be a feature of how my brain works (or doesn’t), as I certainly don’t think it’s a feature of Penman’s work. Also, the English monarchs tend to reuse the same names over and over. It makes it very hard for me to keep them straight.

Years ago, I read the first novel in the Angevin “trilogy” (now at five books, ha), When Christ and His Saints Slept (also here). Here I am finally with book two in that series. “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120,” which kills the one legitimate son of King Henry I. He names his daughter Maude, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as heir, but the people balk at the rule of a woman, and her cousin Stephen seizes power. The Empress Maude makes an armed bid for the throne which fails, but in her remarriage to the Count of Anjou she produces a son who will call himself Henry Fitz Empress and rise to great heights. At nineteen he marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, an older woman, a great beauty, former wife to the King of France; at twenty-one she is a queen again when he becomes King of England. …All this is prelude; Time and Chance covers several decades of Henry’s rule over England, his passionate and eventually rocky marriage with Eleanor, and his changing relationship with Thomas Becket. More than 500 pages flew by for me, as I was entirely spellbound by the characters, their relationships and machinations.

Henry is controlling, confident, charming, single-minded, arrogant, and brave. For a king, he can be quite informal, appreciating simple clothes and food and bawdy humor; but his temper flares easily (much talk of the Angevin temper) and he does not tolerate disrespect. Eleanor is quite his equal, passionate and ambitious, not to be crossed; she is wise and clever, and he doesn’t take her advice as often as he should. They’re well-matched and truly love each other, in Penman’s telling, but he’ll betray her late in the book. Betrayal is central to this story, because the third main character is Thomas Becket, who has risen from a low birth to serve as Henry’s chancellor and one of the few (alongside Eleanor and the Empress Maude) whom the king fully trusts. When Henry promotes him to Archbishop of Canterbury, though, Becket’s loyalties shift. The two men will spend the next eight years as enemies, with Becket pushing for Church powers while Henry pushes for his own. Henry, Eleanor, and Becket form the triangle that is the heart of this book. But for me, a loveable fourth figures heavily as well: Ranulf, Maude’s brother and Henry’s uncle, had a Welsh mother and has made a home and a life for himself in Wales, with a Welsh wife and children who consider the English to be an ‘other’ (if not an enemy). Ranulf’s loyalties are obviously split, but they are deep; he feels himself bound to Henry but also to the Welsh King Owain, and when the two come into conflict he is sorely pained. As impressive as Henry and Eleanor can be, Ranulf is the one who feels most human, most the friend whose eyes I see this story through.

The book is written in a third person perspective that moves around, close to one character and then another; the reader gets views inside of Eleanor’s heart and mind, glimmers into Henry’s, but I think we do get closest to Ranulf, and even his wife. (Rhiannon is blind, which is quite a remarkable condition in this time.) Thomas Becket remains an enigma, as I think he is to history, and we know Penman takes her historical accuracy very seriously. It’s one of the things I love and respect about her, even if I can’t seem to retain the historical details of her novels once I put them down.

My first Penman, which I fell in love with, was The Reckoning, which centers the Welsh. I don’t know if she writes especially lovingly of Welsh characters or if I respond especially to them, but Ranulf won my heart, again. Interestingly, he’s the character in this novel that Penman entirely invented: she writes that Henry I had so many illegitimate children (at least 20) that one more couldn’t hurt.

When these characters get in ships or on horses and go charging over land and water and meet with dignitaries and offer gifts and make agreements, and break them, and when the lists of names get long, I tend to glaze over a little. But when they are engaged in close, interpersonal relationships – when Ranulf and Henry joke, or Ranulf and Rhiannon discuss decisions, or Eleanor and Henry fight or make love, or Ranulf and his brother Rainald catch up, or the Welsh prince Hywel makes poetry and flirts and jests, or Eleanor and Maude and Maud (yes, another one) confer on the role of women… these moments compel me. The larger power plays are interesting, and they are the plot points that coerce the interpersonal relationships. But it’s the private and interpersonal that drive my devotion to the story. There is a certain romance to the way that Penman lets these characters generally be their best selves, a sentimentality in some (not all) marriages and in parent-child relations. I cynically suspect that this perspective is a rather optimistic reading of history, but it certainly makes for enjoyable fiction.

I still admire this author so much, and I find her work so enjoyable. She makes decades of political intrigue feel like an intimate drama among people I could be friends with. Five hundred pages of historical fiction about the Plantagenet dynasty sounds like it would be a slog, but here it’s an indulgence. I’m still committed to reading all her work, over the years!

Rating: 8 shared trenchers.

One Response

  1. In other words, in this historical fiction you love the latter & tolerate the former, which conforms with the reader I know. Hardly surprising; and speaks to Penman’s high art, appealing to the full spectrum of the genre’s readers.

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