When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon K Penman
Ballantine, 10th printing, 1996
Genre: historical fiction, romance
Synopsis & Review: Though he had promised the throne to his daughter Maude (Matilda), insisting that his barons to homage to her as England’s heir, the death of Henry I prompted a succession crisis. Rather than suffer a queen regnant, the majority of England’s barons supported Henry’s nephew Stephen when he claimed the throne instead. Stephen’s usurpation ushered in an era of turmoil for England, nineteen years of bloody warfare and strife as he and Maude bitterly struggled for the throne. Barons switched sides, and unscrupulous men made war for their own ends, adding to the troubles as the balance of power swung first in one direction, then the other. Due to the horror and lawlessness, the period became known as The Anarchy, and a contemporary chronicler described it as a time “when Christ and His saints slept.”
Explaining the entire novel would take up too much time and space for one of my little blog entries, so if you haven’t read the book and are not familiar with The Anarchy, I suggest checking out the Wikipedia article linked above for the bare bones of the tale. Penman opens fifteen years before Henry’s death, with the sinking of the White Ship and the loss of his only male heir. She carries it through the intervening years, introducing the various players (many of whom are Henry’s illegitimate offspring) and explaining Maude’s troubled marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou–one of the reasons the barons were so reluctant to accept her as queen. There are three major protagonists to begin with–Maude, Stephen, and Ranulf– though as with all of Penman’s novels, there are many POVs throughout the novel. Toward the end focus shifts to Maude’s son Henry (soon-to-be Henry II) and Eleanor of Aquitaine, which ends up fracturing the narrative somewhat. When their story begins, Penman also adds a more bodice-ripping quality as she demonstrates their passion for one another. I would have preferred that the novel ended before Henry stepped onto the main stage, and that he and Eleanor were mostly reserved for the next book in the trilogy, Time and Chance.
Penman’s characterizations are honest and empathetic; she refrains from taking sides and is never interested in making villains, but instead explains motivations and explores their psychological make-up, creating vivid, believable people from sometimes scanty historical record. Both Maude and Stephen are sympathetic despite their flaws, and readers will understand how things went so horribly awry. Minor characters are equally well done, though I felt that Ranulf as a third protagonist detracted from the history. A completely fictional character with a romance storyline, he seemed completely extraneous and distracting. And why on earth did his beloved dyrehounds just disappear after Loth? I know he gave away the others before he set out on that fateful trek, but you’d think he would one day acquire another puppy after his wounds had healed over time. That was entirely out of character.
So, I wasn’t into Ranulf and his sweet little romance storyline. And I must say, it doesn’t bother me all of the time, but Penman has a habit of writing dialog with a mild forsoothly bent. I seem to have noticed it more often in When Christ and His Saints Slept, possibly because it was less enthralling than her other novels. Why is that the case? I have not yet decided; it could be the awkward fictional storyline or the lack of a truly compelling protagonist along the line of Simon de Montfort or Llywelyn Fawr. It might also be that the novel glanced over or just touched on too many subjects and events, giving it a slightly superficial feel. Or perhaps I would say that it really felt like a prologue rather than an individual novel, something written simply to lay the foundation for the other Plantagenet novels. Whatever the reason, it failed to hold my attention the way her other novels have, taking more than a week for me to get through rather than the more usual one day and one night. Plus, she made the point about cats not being usual pets at least twice in this novel, and I recall it being mentioned several times in the Welsh novels. I get it! Very few people other than lonely nuns kept cats as pets!
Penman is a talented writer, one of the best publishing historical fiction today, particularly in her fictionalized biography niche. Something that has always struck me about her books is not just the level of research and detail that goes into them, but how her characters are not anachronistic. She creates a realistic mindset, subtly showing how differently people then thought about many things we take for granted. And that is difficult to find in popular historical fiction. This isn’t her best work; if you’ve never read Penman before, I would suggest The Sunne in Splendour or Here Be Dragons. (After I read the former, I was hooked, both on Penman and Ricardian fiction.) But if you’re already a fan, this is a good prequel to her Plantagenet novels.
Cover: Meh. Depicts a daring escape of Maude’s, on a burgundy background with lots of gilded lettering for the title and author. Unexciting. A bunch of smaller white type clutters it up. I’ve seen better for her books.
Stephen trusted Brien even less than he did Miles, for Brien was that rarity, a man who seemed willing to admit women into that select circle of those who wielded royal authority. Stephen had long suspected that Brien would defect to Maude within hours of her landing on English soil, and oddly, that hurt, for he had a genuine liking for this illegitimate, honorable son of a Breton count, sensing that they shared an uncommon willingness to forgive human folly. A great pity, he though, that Brien should be so eager to entangle himself in Maude’s web.
3 August – 13 August