Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones

Marguerite, queen consort of France. Eleonore, queen consort of England. Sanchia, queen consort of Germany. Beatrice, queen consort of Sicily. Four remarkable women made even more so by their sisterhood and the struggles each faced. Author Sherry Jones reveals deep-seated rivalries and startling secrets about the sisters and their courtly lives in the medieval world of Four Sisters, All Queens.

Despite their shared heritage as the children of Count Ramon Berenguer of Provence and Beatrice of Savoy, Marguerite, Eleonore, Sanchia and Beatrice, have anything but an idyllic existence. Constant warfare with the neighboring county of Toulouse means poor nourishment, threadbare clothes and hand-me-downs, and the possibility that their father Ramon’s days as count are numbered. Beatrice of Savoy is determined her children will escape their circumstances by marrying well, a scheme the two eldest sisters heartily endorse. Marguerite marries the pious Louis of France, whose mother Blanche will not surrender her power to a young queen. Blanche continually disrupts Marguerite’s expected role as Louis’ consort at court and even intrudes on their privacy in the couple’s bedchamber. Eleonore’s marriage to Henry III of England would fare better than her elder sister’s own, if not for Henry’s jealous courtiers. Many of the English barons, including members of Henry’s family, comically refer to Eleonore as an interfering “foreigner” despite their own dual heritages across the Channel. 

The younger sisters Sanchia and Beatrice fare little better. The devout Sanchia, for whom beauty is curse, looks for an escape from Raymond of Toulouse’s eager attentions. Her elder sisters and mother invent a timely rescue, beguiling King Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall into thinking he has fallen in love with a woman as vivacious as Beatrice of Savoy, when he marries Sanchia. Beatrice seems the happiest in her union with Louis’ brother Charles, if only Blanche’s schemes to claim Provence for France and the sudden death of Beatrice’s father hadn’t forced her into the marriage. Unlike Sanchia, Beatrice has always felt like an interloper among her siblings. Charles’s machinations force her to choose between love for her sisters or her husband, ensuring the permanence of a long-standing feud with Marguerite and Eleonore’s bitterness over rival claims to Sicily. It’s heartbreaking to witness how easily each of the sisters forgets their mother’s chief admonition: family first, when it comes to each other.

The author takes readers on a mad dash between rival courts in France and England, and the German court, where Sanchia enjoys a brief reign. If I could find any fault with this novel, I wish it had been longer. Jones has created multifaceted characters with distinct personalities, flaws and triumphs. Marguerite’s strong personality emerges despite all of her mother in-law’s attempts to subdue her. Eleonore is perhaps even bolder like her elder sister, often thwarting her husband the king and his courtiers. While Sanchia’s demure nature seems subdued compared with Marguerite and Eleonore, her endurance against steady trials at her husband’s side reveal an inner strength to rival that of her sisters. Beatrice’s personality matches that of her two elder sisters, but she fosters the same compassion one might feel for Sanchia, as both endure unions with men who ride roughshod over their wives’ wishes and sympathies. It’s a testament to Jones’ natural talent that she can explore the vast history of the period with obvious passion and interest, yet leave a reader wanting to know more.      

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