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A Book A Week: Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

I'm on a historical fiction mini-bender and thought I would try one of Elizabeth Chadwick's newer offerings, Lady of the English. I've read a lot of her earlier stuff, but kind of went off her when she switched to writing only about real historical characters (instead of pure fiction set in medieval times).

Being forced to stick to the historical record limits the choices an author can make, dramatically speaking. Like this story about Matilda, who ought to have been queen of England after the death of her father, Henry I, but who was denied the throne by her scheming male cousins and their pals. It would have been much better if Matilda beat those jerks at their own game and got the throne anyway, but alas, it didn't happen that way, so Chadwick can't write it that way. Bummer for me, the reader.

And then there's the temptation to short-circuit the whole reading experience via Wikipedia. After a while I just really had to know whether Matilda would triumph, so I looked it up. (To be honest I sort of already knew, never having heard of the great Empress Matilda of England.) Once I had read the whole article on Wikipedia, the rest of the story became anticlimactic. Another battle for the men, another death in childbirth for the women, ho hum.

To be fair, Chadwick writes well and creates fully realized characters. Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, had a tumultuous marriage. She was ten years older, and they married when he was still a teenager and she already a widow.

Chadwick brings these characters to life: We cheer for Matilda, we have a love-hate thing with Geoffrey, and the supporting characters are quirky and memorable. If you like Philippa Gregory (who also is constrained by the historical record) then you should try Elizabeth Chadwick, who I think is a more interesting writer, and who writes about a less familiar period of history (okay, less familiar to U.S. readers).

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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