book review/recommendation

title: when christ and his saints slept
author: sharon kay penman

an excellent book, especially for anyone interested in english history. it follows the story of stephen, a grandson of william the conqueror, and maude, daughter and heir of the recently deceased king henry I. in my opinion, it was a well told story, backed up by occasional comments from various contemporary chronicles.

the basic story line is as follows: henry, his family and court are moving from normandy back to england; his only [legitimate] son, riding the famous "white ship" which brought william the conqueror to england, is killed when the ship runs around a few miles out of port. stephen, who was supposed to be riding on the white ship as well, is "miraculously" saved when he changes his mind at the last minute, changing ships at the last minute so that he can travel with the girl who will later become his wife. henry I, in desperation, names maude (the "good guy") as his heir, hoping she'll bear him grandsons who will be able to take the throne. but when henry dies not long after an argument with maude, england--which is already balking at the thought of a female ruler--is ready to believe the worst about her, and stephen (the "bad guy") is able to have himself proclaimed king.

stephen is either the worst bad guy ever or the best bad guy ever, depending on how you look at it. first off, as the king's nephew, he had a legitimate claim to the throne... not as good a claim as maude, to be sure, but a good claim. though stephen is initially reluctant to take maude's place, after some prodding from his brother (an english bishop who seems to hate women) and looking around and realizing that most of the english nobles are neither ready nor willing to follow a woman, he decides to go for it. unfortunately, in the process of this he ends up starting the very thing he hoped to avoid by preventing maude from taking the throne--a civil war.

stephen is, with one possible exception, the best character in the book (that is, he's actually a good person). maude, on the other hand, is--to put it politely--a bitch. while stephen is fighting for what he believes is best for england, maude is fighting for herself. her driving motivation is me, me, me, mine, mine, mine for almost the entire book. the only thing that manages to change her motivation is the death of her brother (one of her father's 20+ bastard children), a powerful and well respected nobleman and battle commander, and the only possible contender stephen has for the best character/best person award. at this point, realizing her hope of taking the throne is basically nil, maude retreats to normandy, which her husband--who, though he has a great sense of humor, is pretty much a dick for most of their marriage--has managed to conquer, and begins directing all her efforts towards making sure that her son will sit on the english throne.

stephen reminds me, in some ways, of jimmy carter; a good, well intentioned person who it would be great to work with or for, but who has trouble making the hard decisions that are necessary to run a country. his mercy if often seen as a weakness, and is also frequently used against him; at one time, a rebellious lord provided his five year old son as a hostage, and then promptly breaks the truce, gambling on stephen's history of doing what is right rather than what is necessary. the gamble pays off; the child is spared, and more people lose their respect for stephen.

although stephen was able to hang onto the throne for his lifetime, he is unable to pass it on. his oldest son, eustace, chokes to death while eating an eel (the same meal that killed henry I). operating from a position of weakness--he's getting old, and maude's oldest son henry has just humbled the french king in battle after marrying his ex-wife eleanor and adding aquitaine to his normandy holdings--he recognizes henry as his heir.

it's a fairly long book, and written from a fairly femenist perspective, but is an otherwise good read.