Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reviews of Obscure Books:
Maureen Peters, A Song for Marguerite

Peters, Maureen. A Song for Marguerite. London: Hale, 1984. 172pp.

Maureen Peters is an extremely prolific Welsh novelist. Under her real name, she writes mostly about royalty, though lately she's been writing Victorian gothic romances. As Catherine Darby (her best known pseudonym), she's written many gothic novels, mostly historical, from a variety of eras. I own nearly all her books though am missing a significant few. Peters is a strong storyteller, concentrating on the interpersonal relationships of royals and nobles. She can create a regal atmosphere using prose and dialogue alone, so much that you nearly forget that apart from descriptions of clothing (which I can't judge the accuracy of), there's almost no real historical detail. Her accuracy, with regard to people, locales, and events, is OK in places but far off in others, and in A Song for Marguerite, there are some genealogical mistakes - but more on that later.

When I stopped by my Robert Hale bookcase yesterday, this title popped out at me - and I couldn't resist reviewing it because I know Edward II has his online fans. It's also short; you can read it in an hour or two. Unfortunately for poor Marguerite, but fortunately for you ladies, A Song for Marguerite deals far more with the Edward II-Piers Gaveston relationship than it does with this little-known queen.

We first glimpse Marguerite as a ten-year-old princess living at the court of her brother, Philip IV of France. She knows she's plain and can never compete in the beauty department with her older sister, Blanche. When the English king's brother Edmund, called the "English duke" (what is he duke of? I believe he's the Earl of Lancaster), pays a visit to France to discuss a possible treaty, he tries to arrange Edward I's marriage to one of the royal daughters, probably Blanche, on condition that Gascony be part of her dower. Nothing happens in this regard for about five years (dates are very vague), at which point the Queen Mother decides that the bride will be Marguerite, not Blanche, who's already been promised to Austria. And a good thing for Marguerite, for she prefers an older, more stable man for a husband, even if he's over sixty, and is simply glad to marry at all. She also longs to live in England.

The basic historical story follows: Edward I and Marguerite are happy together, though he treats her more like a cosseted child than a wife. As Edward grows older, he becomes more condescending, waxing on about his adored first wife, Eleanor of Castile, and making it clear to Marguerite that she doesn't measure up in the brains department. Marguerite, though sweet and kind, remains remarkably naive throughout. To her credit, she goes out of her way to befriend her stepson, Ned, as well as his constant companion, Piers Gaveston, and defends their friendship almost to the point of absurdity; she refuses to believe anything improper about them.

Piers Gaveston is easily the most compelling character. He's very charismatic, and people are naturally drawn to him, even Edward I, who reluctantly makes him leave court when it becomes obvious he's a bad influence. Marguerite, too respectful of her much older husband to show her true self with him, can relax around Piers and open up to him about political matters and the royal court. One scene at Woodstock, where Marguerite and her children rest before she's summoned north to join the king in Scotland, is particularly revelatory. Much of an age, the two speak frankly about her marriage and laugh about Henry II and Rosamund Clifford, whose ghost was said to haunt the estate. To Marguerite, Piers jokingly reveals his cynicism about true love, using the earlier royal pair as an example: "'If Henry the Second were to haunt every chamber where he laid a woman,' says Piers, 'he'd have precious little time to spend in Heaven.'" Piers makes humorous asides such as this throughout the novel.

Ned appears as a blond, muscular youth who, to his father's dismay, prefers to spend his time on pursuits suitable for peasants - rowing, swimming, and, yes, thatching. And young Isabella, Marguerite's niece, is described as a beautiful, charming child who turns into a gorgeous young woman. She grows up in truth once she realizes Ned's true feelings toward Gaveston. The scene where she tries to explain the reasons behind her unhappy marriage to her very naive yet older aunt is both touching and sad.

Now to the genealogical mistakes. When puzzling out relationships between characters, Peters occasionally mixes up Marguerite's sister-in-law, Jeanne of Navarre, Queen of France (called by the English equivalent Jane for some odd reason), and her mother, Marie of Brabant, the queen dowager. For example, it's not Marie's mother who married Edmund of Lancaster as his second wife, but Jeanne's mother. Peters repeats this incorrect fact several times. Gaveston also never consummates his marriage or has children; wrong. And the historical background - well, it's lightly sketched, to put it mildly. Edward I does go on campaign to Scotland, and all sorts of nasty things get done to William Wallace (off-screen), but Marguerite doesn't like politics, so we don't see much else.

This is undoubtedly more screen-time than this brief novel deserves, but as the saying goes, if I'd had more time, I'd have made it shorter. It's a smooth, easy read that gives insight into some members of Edward II's circle, and completists will probably want to read it, though be on the alert for historical errors. There are more that I haven't mentioned, and probably others still that I didn't pick up on.


  1. Another one to hunt up! Thanks for the review!

  2. Thanks for the tip, Sarah! I've had a quick look, and found one copy of it in New Zealand, for $28 (US).

    By the way, Marguerite plays quite a big part in Paul Doherty's just-released Poison Maiden.

  3. Thanks, Alianore, I've put the Doherty on my Amazon wishlist.

    If either of you reads this one, let me know what you think!

  4. Someone over at eBay is trying to sell Peters' Night of the Willow for the US equivalent of over $1,000 (no takers yet). Must be some willow.

  5. Wow. I see they're also trying to sell a 1976 paperback on computer programming for over $3000. Either something went wrong with their automated auction software, or they're insane.