Saturday, May 06, 2006

Reviews of Obscure Books:
Anne Bell, Daughter of the Dragon

Bell, Anne. Daughter of the Dragon. London: Robert Hale, 1978. 176pp, hardbound. 1-7091-6679-6.

This older novel about Nest of Deheubarth, called "the Helen of Wales" for her beauty and her amorous exploits, is fortunately easier to find than Eve Trevaskis's Lord of Misrule, reviewed previously. Although no date is given, the novel begins in the late 11th century, with Nest as a young girl, and concludes in her middle age, as she watches proudly over her numerous children. In between, Bell takes us through Nest's tumultuous life. Born the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of Deheubarth, young Nest makes an immediate impression on Prince Henry of England during his family's royal visit to her father's court. After Rhys is killed in an attack led by his cousin (which occurred in AD 1093), Nest is brought to England, where she becomes Henry's mistress. Refreshingly, Bell depicts Nest's relationship with Henry as one based on gratitude rather than love or infatuation. While Nest is certainly willing, she accedes to Henry's request because she feels she can do no better. After the birth of Nest's two sons, Henry marries her off to Gerald of Windsor, one of his strongest supporters. She grows to love Gerald and bears him five children. But after years of seeming stability in her life, Nest feels restless; when she makes the impulsive decision to abandon her family by absconding with Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys (and brother to her late father's enemies), she is following her heart for the first time in her life. Bell portrays Nest's midnight abduction from Pembroke Castle by Owain as a grand romantic escapade, one that ends only with Owain's death. When Nest makes contact again with her grown children many years later, they are surprisingly understanding - one aspect of the novel that didn't ring true. However, Gerald is less forgiving, and refuses ever to see her again. But a happy ending for Nest still awaits in the arms of widowed Stephen Cedricson, the handsome Norman who had brought her to England many years before.

I enjoyed this smoothly written novel, and despite its brevity, I felt that Bell managed to create a realistic personality for Nest. Despite her notoriety, she's no ultra-feminist. All the same, while she pays the price for her impulsive actions, she doesn't ever regret them. Bell has a gift for describing scenery; the Welsh hills in particular come alive. Although Welsh politics of the time remain mostly in the background, they are explained well. For the most part, Nest's story as depicted here is true. She did have many lovers (including King Henry, though their affair may have continued during her marriage) and bore children to each of them, including her husband, and she continues to be known as Helen of Wales because her abduction by Owain led to a minor civil war. Nest also left quite a legacy. Her grandson (by daughter Angharad) was Gerald of Wales, aka Welsh chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, and her later descendants by Gerald were known as the FitzGeralds, or Geraldines, rulers of southern Ireland through Tudor times. For more information, see Nest: The Helen of Wales.

Daughter of the Dragon includes some interesting historical conjecture. Gwenn Meredith (see note below) states that Nest likely went to England in 1081 as a political hostage, while Rhys died in 1093; therefore, she wouldn't have been in Wales at the time of her father's death. Bell indicates that Robert of Gloucester, Empress Matilda's loyal half-brother, was Nest's son, and there's a scene where he brings his wife Mabel Fitzhamon home to visit her. I was suspicious about this initially, but since then, I've been doing background reading, and opinion on whether Nest was Robert's mother seems to be mixed. There are some historians that don't dismiss it outright, in any case. After Owain's death, Bell comments that things may have been different if Owain's child by Nest had survived. However, it appears that they did have two children, Llywellyn and Einion, and at least the latter survived to have descendants. The novel concludes with Nest's marriage to Stephen, constable of Cardigan Castle (though the jury's still out on whether they ever officially wed). My favorite novel about Nest remains Eleanor Fairburn's The Golden Hive, which is considerably longer (and more romanticized, I'll admit), but this is a nicely told version of her life as well.

In sum: A brief but very readable novel about a famous Welsh princess, a retelling possibly more accurate than I originally thought.

For further reading: Gwenn Meredith, "Henry I's Concubines," Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002): 14-28. If your library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read the article here. I'm no expert, so if anyone reading this knows more about the historical background, please comment.

5 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting! I'll have to search it out.

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  2. It's definitely worth getting on interlibrary loan if you don't want to pay the $25 that ABE sells it for. (Still better than $808...)

    I meant to write reviews of a couple other recent reads, too, but after I found that journal article I got carried away with this one.

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  3. I'm really intrigued by this book but the $158 price tag is too much for me. Any suggestions?

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  4. Hi Jeanette, you might try searching for it on bookfinder.com. There are a few copies around the $40 range, which is still high but typical for out-of-print Hale books.

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  5. This definitely sounds like a great read. I'm going to have to look into finding this one.

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