Monday, August 02, 2010

An interview with Cecelia Holland, author of The Secret Eleanor

I'm happy to present this interview with Cecelia Holland, one of America's foremost historical novelists. Her newest novel The Secret Eleanor, which takes place during one landmark year in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, is published on August 3rd by Berkley/Penguin.

Many authors have published their own takes on this noted queen's life and times, yet Cecelia's interpretation stands apart by showing Eleanor from a refreshingly new perspective. The Secret Eleanor focuses on her relationship with her younger sister, Petronilla, the woman who knew her best. Petronilla shares Eleanor's gorgeous looks but lacks her ambition and self-confidence, and she's destined to remain forever in the shadow of her royal sibling... or is she?

The Secret Eleanor weaves an engaging tale of deception, ambition, romance, and shifting loyalties, all told in a spare narrative style that brings mid-12th century France to brilliant life. The characters' dialogue, sharp and memorable, readily conveys all the intelligence and wit one would expect in a novel about one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages.

I last conducted an interview with Cecelia in 2002, a more comprehensive piece done following the appearance of The Soul Thief, first in her Corban Loosestrife sequence of Viking-era novels. That series wrapped up this July with the sixth entry, Kings of the North, set during the reign of England's King Ethelred II. Also appearing this summer from Sourcebooks is a reissue of her Great Maria, one of my favorite historical novels, about a strong woman carving a life for herself and her family amid the troubled politics of 11th-century southern Italy. Not only is 2010 an excellent year for Eleanor of Aquitaine enthusiasts, but for fans of Cecelia Holland's work as well.

Eleanor of Aquitaine's life story is one that many readers know, or rather think they know. You mention in your author's note that all that's really known about her are "scraps and pieces." Were you surprised to discover her life wasn't as well documented as believed?

Not really. The documentation on anything that long ago is always pretty scrappy. What fills in the spaces are the writer's preconceptions and biases, and in the case of Eleanor, these were marked. The male writers of her time were either totally snowed by her beauty (these were troubadours and poets) or utterly disapproving of her active life and her refusal to submit even to a husband. So strip that away, and there is a tantalizing chain of events you can interpret in a variety of ways.

One thing that interested me very much was how her marriage to Henry came about, given they had only met once. A great many historians assume the arrangement was all his idea, which is flat out contradicted by the evidence — she sent for him, she proposed to him, in fact. If they laid the groundwork for this somehow in the brief meeting the previous summer, only she was in a position to discuss a marriage, since she was still married to Louis, and there's some evidence his father did not approve. If they did not set things up in August, then it's all on her when she proposes to him the next April. Either way, she was the instigator. As you would expect, she being 30 and he 19.

Eleanor's character was denigrated by her male contemporaries, and Bernard of Clairvaux, who was especially critical, is shown rather harshly. At the same time, her sexuality isn't ignored in the novel; rather the opposite. How did you comb through all the rumors and innuendo to come up with your portrayal?

The shock, shock, I tell you, the male writers (then and now) display was enough. They couldn't get past that she behaved like a man, free and active as a man, and this to them meant she was a bad woman — women were supposed to sit quietly, do needlework, pray and have babies. What a bore. Eleanor obviously thought so too.

Petronilla of Aquitaine doesn't figure strongly either in biographies or novels about Eleanor, and I think many readers won't have realized that Eleanor even had a sister. What made you decide to make their relationship one of the novel's focal points?

I needed another point of view. Petronilla and Eleanor were very close, so she was an obvious choice. Nobody knowing much about her implied to me she was more retiring and inward than Eleanor, which made her anyway the perfect foil, and then as the plot developed and the relationship between them began to change and create real tension, it worked in unexpected ways.

Petronilla was a "good girl," doomed to the fate of the obedient and submissive medieval woman — ignored, treated as a object. The chronicles and histories don't expect a woman to be in a position of power so they don't see it when it happens, unless it's someone like Eleanor, who quite simply outshone the men. But Blanche of Castile gets almost no press — all she did was run France while Louis IX was off fighting his dumb crusade. She must have been as forceful and clear-headed as her grandmother, but nobody noticed because she didn't kick up her heels; she seems to have been a model wife.

One of the strong impressions I got while reading The Secret Eleanor was that people had a close relationship with their environment, much more so than we do now. The natural world has a tangible presence, even in scenes that don't take place outdoors. For example, even at the beginning, Louis VII's great hall sits on a "low, sandy island" and is described as a "low cave of stone at the center of the palace." I enjoyed seeing this emphasis carried through the novel. Why was this an important concept to get across?

Medieval people lived at the mercy of the natural world. (We do too but we're deluded, until an oil rig blows up or a hurricane crushes Miami, and then we're stunned.) Therefore they paid close attention to nature, and the natural world supplied them with endless teachings and symbols. All you have to do is look at a book of hours to see this. The world was intensely real to them, this is the centuries-long clash between realism and nominalism, and the roots of modern physics go back to that argument.

You've made it easy to envision the changes in scenery and mood when Eleanor finally returns home to Aquitaine. Did you end up visiting France in the course of your research and writing, and do you share Eleanor's love for Poitiers and its culture?

I spent some time in Poitiers, walking around, talking to people, trying to soak up the atmosphere,and I went around the area and tried to go to all the places Eleanor went. The big monastery is there still, with her lying on top of her sarcophagus. All of Poitou and Guyenne to the east Provence and the rest are wonderful, magical places, layer on layer of the past, from the dolmens up through old Roman stuff to the medieval to now. I love southern France. Those people know how to eat.

This is going way back, but in our previous interview, you mentioned that you found it easiest to devise your male characters. Among the major female characters in The Secret Eleanor Petronilla, Eleanor, Eleanor's lady-in-waiting Claire did you find any of them more challenging to depict than the others?

Claire, who is entirely fictional, was hardest, because I had to overcome my first feelings about her, a powerless, ignorant young person caught in a web of power and conflict, a greasy unpleasant kid I had no sympathy with. She refused to stay that way, and slowly she forced me to pay attention, and then she solved a big problem I was having anyway: the wandering Welsh lutenist Thomas, who was too wandering and anarchic and who was blundering around my plot not helping any at all.

I was very glad when Claire and Thomas developed their relationship through music, which didn't come to me until very late in the maturing of the plot (after two failed efforts at cooking them into a subplot), and she began to grow and change in ways I hadn't foreseen and liked very much, and whammo! Thomas got more human and more useful. That subplot is still one of my favorite parts of the book, possibly because I sweat blood over it.

Petronilla came almost automatically as a foil to Eleanor. With Eleanor, the big thing was to get past Katharine Hepburn, who has dominated the popular imagination since her splendid performance in The Lion in Winter, which meant, for me, making Eleanor really over the top, splendid and reckless and brilliant and beautiful, and very dangerous in the course of it. Petronilla has been in her shadow all along, which means she's carried the banner for gentleness and kindness, and when she's pushed into another role there's room for her to move. I love when a character grows and changes, but it's a mystery to me how that happens, frankly. All these women did it, for which I'm grateful.

Why does the medieval period call to you so much, in terms of choosing settings for your fiction?

The Middle Ages were the childhood of our own time. Much of our concerns now began then: modern physics, constitutional government, government-certified marriage, our current problems with the Arab world, just for starters. I feel very at home there, I'm not a visitor to something foreign, I'm just going to another part of the forest.

You have three novels being published this summer (which I think is wonderful)... is the timing coincidental? How did this come about?

It's a coincidence. Kings of the North is the 6th book of my Viking series The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife, and so a continuation of earlier work. I had been working on Eleanor for years, without a publisher, but I had a contract for Kings before I even began writing it and as a continuation, I already had the characters and most of the plot, and I wrote it in seven months. Then I got a new agent to handle Eleanor, and she sold Great Maria to Sourcebooks. I like the timing, because Maria and Eleanor both deal with women who break the mold, but Kings of the North is a totally different book. I don't even think it's fantasy, it's more what some people call slipstream — a slipstream historical fiction, which I find very satisfying to think about — with a lot of good history woven into a dreamy philosophical layer, a figure of speech made actual.


Novelist Christy English has a short guest post from Cecelia Holland up on her blog today as well. The Secret Eleanor is out tomorrow in trade paperback ($15.00, 361pp).


  1. The Middle Ages were the childhood of our own time.

    Love that!

    I haven't read any Cecelia Holland before. Great Maria is my next book to read, and I can't wait to get to it now.

    Thanks for the interview!

  2. Fantastic interview -- I've never read Ms Holland but I'm putting The Secret Eleanor at the top of my TBR!

  3. Sarah, Thank you for this lovely interview...Cecelia Holland's Eleanor and Petra are women I can not wait to read about...

  4. Wonderful interview and how cool that she focuses on Eleanor's younger sister as well. I will have to pick up this book.

  5. Great interview! I finished The Secret Eleanor recently and liked it quite a bit - using Petra as one of the main characters was a nice change of pace!

  6. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Alison Weir also has a new novel out about Eleanor. There have also been three novels on Catherine de Medici in the past year (including Mr. Gortner's, which I am in the process of reading). "Trends" are always interesting . . . Sarah other librarian

  7. Thanks to everyone for commenting!

    Of the novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine that I've read, SKP's Time and Chance, Margaret Ball's Duchess of Aquitaine, and this one rank most highly on my list, and they're all very different. It is interesting how so many novels about the same characters come out in close succession, independently of one another.

  8. Wonderful interview, Sarah, and i found the discussion about the place of the natural world in CH's stories very interesting. Like many others, I hadn't really registered the existence of Eleanor's sister.

    I have trouble believing that the novels of a historical novelist of Cecelia Holland's stature have ever been allowed to go out of print. She is one of my favourites. Her wonderfully nuanced, spare and dynamic prose perfectly captures the complex personalties of her characters, who are quite often talented but stubborn cusses :) I have a special weakness for her Irishmen; Muirtagh from "The Kings in Winter", and "Firedrake"'s Laeghaire.

  9. Thanks, Annis! It's been a long time since I read Firedrake and I've yet to read Kings in Winter. Rakossy is another favorite of mine. The setting is utterly brutal and hopeless but heroic and very real.

  10. Great interview, Sarah. As a longtime fan of Ms Holland's work, it's fascinating to hear her talk about it. Thank you!

  11. I'm delighted to see a cover with a historical woman on it--that has a face! Please let this be a new trend!

    And yes, I really enjoyed the interview. Saved it for later so I could sit down and take my time reading it. Thank you, Cecilia and Sarah.

  12. Thank you for the interview. I look forward to reading Holland's new book.

  13. Dana Marie Kiser1:25 PM

    I love Ms. Holland's books, and searched long and hard to collect all of them in hardback. I am excited to see she has released some new books for me to devour. One of the things I love is the atmosphere she creates--I feel as though I am "there" admidst the scenery, can feel the air and country about me. I am always transported.

  14. Anonymous3:28 PM

    I haven't had the pleasure of reading Celia Holland's novels yet, but I did just receive "The Secret Eleanor" as a gift. After reading this interview, I can't wait to dive into the world the Holland has put down in print!