The work of Sharon Kay Penman was long been recommended to me and this was the first one of her books I read. Initially, I was concerned that starting in the middle of a trilogy would be difficult, but partly because the novels are based on history – that of the tempestuous and world-changing relationship of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane – and the fact that they are sublimely written, this was no task. On the contrary, immersing my self in this fiery world, where religion, relationships and geography were above all, political was both a pleasure and a marvellous history lesson.
Time and Chance explores the mid-years of Eleanor and Henry’s marriage and the friendship turned enmity of Henry and Thomas Beckett. Drawing on actual historical documents and dialogues, Penman intersperses these with imagined conversations, one fully-fledged and created character, the half-Welsh, Half Norman, Ranulf, Henry’s uncle, and against a backdrop of war, religion, and love, recreates the era in all its ugly glory. Her characterizations are rich and seductive, her use of language is exquisite (eg, describing someone’s eyebrows ‘as so thick, he seemed to be peering at the world through a hedge’) and her world-building faultless. I lived and breathed with Eleanor, felt her triumph and pain, the agony of childbirth, her joy in her offspring, her desperate hurt when Henry’s betrayal becomes known. We understand the emotional and physical distance she put between herself and her husband and, if you know the history, you also know the outcome – Penman provides a context – and, while it’s created, it’s also utterly plausible. Likewise, Henry’s decisions as king, at once both monstrous and shattering, were also given a context and the reader is given access to the life of a powerful man upon whom the right to live or die, for his subjects, depends. The might of words and actions and their consequences are fully and faultlessly explored.
If only all history could be so impassioned and lively! In evoking a well-known period through its prominent and beloved characters, Penman has not only personalised but breathed life into the past and brought it into the present for us all to share. I can’t wait to do some more time-travelling with her.