Thursday, April 29, 2010

Alphabet in Historical:Fiction: J is for Joan, John of Gaunt and Junior kings

This week in the Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge I am focusing on Margaret Campbell Barnes recently rereleased novel Within the Hollow Crown about Richard II. So where does the Js come from? Yes, you've caught me. It is a somewhat tenuous link, but I need to talk about the book and so when I realised that Richard II's mother was Joan of Kent, his uncle is John of Gaunt, and Richard himself was a very young king, well, there's my post for J! I will try to do better next time I promise.

Whilst there are the superstar kings and queens of English history (think Henry VII, Elizabeth I, Charles II, Henry and Eleanor etc) then there are the kings and queens that you know a little about, or those that you don't really know anything at all about!

Young Richard II is a reluctant king. He is not a warrior king like some of his predecessors especially his father who was known as the Black Prince, but a more urbane and cultured young man. Next to his more rambunctious Plantagenet cousins, Richard seems to be much less suited to the role of medieval king. Initially however he is controlled or guided if you like, by his uncles including John of Gaunt (who I first met in Anya Seton's wonderful novel Katherine).

The novel is broken into three parts. The first part focuses on one event that I had previously heard of - the Peasant's Rebellion as led by Wat Tyler. As I was reading through the story, I kept on trying to think of where exactly it was that I had previously heard. After quite a bit of thinking, I *think* it was mentioned in Katherine by Anya Seton. During this early episode Richard demonstrates his ability to relate to the common person, and realises that it is possible for him to obtain what he really wants - the love of his people. When he is betrayed to his people by the very people who are supposed to be guiding him, it is a blow to his pride, and to his reign.

The second part is primarily concerned with his marriage to Anne of Bohemia. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that Anne was sister to Wencelas (presumable good king Wencelas as made famous in the Christmas Carol). Whilst initially not a love match, the marriage between Richard and Anne is portrayed by Campbell Barnes as one where understanding leads to love which leads to passion. The court that they head is cultured, and educated, with great style and fashion, and yet having a country at peace isn't enough for many of the courtiers and family members. Initially an unpopular marriage, Anne soons grows into her role as queen, and Richard begins to understand that it is possible for him to rule, and to reign outside of his strong-willed and ambitious uncles influence, thus setting in motion the events in the final third of the book.

Towards the end of his reign, and accordingly of the book, Richard seems to lose that common touch that characterised many of his early years, and to become a somewhat selfish leader. The people are dissatisfied, the court is dissatisfied, and for a medieval king that can mean only one thing - removal from the throne, one way or the other. As one rival for the throne falls, another steps in his place until eventually with more a whimper than a bang, Richard is usurped by the man who we now know as Henry IV.

The strange thing about this book is that I really, really struggled to read it. It took me nearly two weeks to read a 333 page book that I would normally expect to read in no more than three days. I am really not sure why because I have previously read other books by Margaret Campbell Barnes and enjoyed them. Maybe it was because I tried to read this as my reading-in-bed book as opposed to my reading-on-the-train book, or maybe it really just wasn't the time for me to read this book. When I was reading it at night I found it difficult to stay awake, but when I changed it into my train book it was interesting enough, but at the end of the day when I put the book down I really had to force myself to pick it up again. Who knows, maybe it just isn't ever going to be the book for me, but I hope not because I will be disappointed if that is the case.

Here is the blurb for the book:

A Reluctant King, a Desperate nation, and the most misunderstood reign in history.

Unlike his fatherthe Black Prince, or his namesake King Richard the Lionheart, Richard II never really wanted to be king. But the mantle of royalty is thrust upon his shoulder at age eleven, in a time when England is racked by unrest and class warfare. A leader unexpected as he is inexperienced. Richard must find a way to triumph over a fierce conflict more destructive than any foreign enemy. Blessed with the ability to take the pulse of the common people, Richard proves himself a true Plantagenet in standing down a peasant revolt.

In the midst of a tender, exquisite love with Anne of Bohemia, Richard finds the strength to outwit the schemes of his uncles and cousin Henry Bolingbroke and stay on the throne, holiding the country in the palm of his hand. But as Richard slowly begins to lose the common touch by which he had ruled so brilliantly, he needs to find the courage to consider England.

Widely acclaimed historical fiction master Margaret Campbell Barnes showcases the true spirit of a much-maligned king whose imaginative and intelligent spirit broke hard against the war-mongering world, and who wanted nothing more than the love of England.

As well as counting for the Alphabet in Historical Fiction, this book also counts for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, 2010 Pub Challenge and ROOB.

Rating 3.5/5


  1. This one sounds really excellent- and you're probably right that the reason it took you longer to finish is cause you read it before sleep. that happens to me all the time...

  2. I would agree with Ms. Lucy - this one sounds pretty good. Thanks for the review!

  3. I don't know much about Richard, but your review intrigues me. I am sorry to hear that this one was such a slog to get through though. I have had that happen to me as well, and most of the time it's because just before bed time is a hard time for me to focus. I am going to be adding this one to my list. Thanks!!