The Secret Eleanor

Written by Cecelia Holland
Review by James Hawking

Just as her marriage with the insipid King Louis VII of France is coming to an end, Eleanor of Aquitaine has a clandestine meeting with the 19-year-old Henry, the heir to Anjou and Normandy, not to mention a possible claim to the throne of England. The result of the meeting is a secret that develops over the nine-month timeframe of the novel. Eleanor needs to use all her power and ingenuity to conceal her embarrassment.

One of the few things I remember from a university education long ago was the assertion by a professor who claimed that love as we know it was invented by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Holland’s Eleanor is original enough to make her own definition of what it means to fall in love with Henry. When his father dies, and he cheats his younger brother of his meager share of the estate, one of Eleanor’s retainers warns her:

“‘And if he would do such to his own brother, what we would he do to a wife?’

She laughed, angry. ‘Bah. I am not a mere wife, am I?’”

An appealing subplot involves one of Eleanor’s ladies in waiting and a troubadour, but the book’s real heroine is Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla, always in the shadow of her imperious sister, the queen. If Eleanor’s concealment seems improbable, we should remember that, like the best historical fiction, it could have happened, maybe should have happened and probably would have happened if their world had been more like ours. Holland has long been one of the most versatile and prolific writers of historical fiction, and this latest entry can only enhance her reputation.