The White Ship

Written by Nicholas Salaman
Review by Tracey Warr

During the reign of Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy, Bertold, the bastard son of a Count, is sent as a tutor to the castle of Breteuil in Normandy, Tom Jones-fashion, to seek his fortune. In Breteuil his fortune finds him in the comely shape of Countess Juliane, bastard daughter of King Henry, who is saddled with a boorish husband, Eustace. Juliane’s father is in conflict with his barons, including Eustace. Bertold thinks he has plenty to worry about, such as not getting caught in the act of adultery and being castrated, and has no idea of the tragedies and dilemmas in store for him as he gets caught up in some of the most famous incidents of the 12th century.

The book is thoroughly researched and should have been fine grist for an historical novel, but the characterisation lacks depth. Real historical people appear like celebrities in Hello magazine. Bertold keeps telling us that Juliane, whose passion drives the story, is an amazing woman and he wishes we had met her, but Salaman fails to bring her off the page. The book is stuffed with deliberate anachronisms which are supposed to be part of the humorous style: “In a recent survey … we came top for sheer dungeon quality”, “the Christmas rush”, “he told him where to get off”, and Abelard’s belief in “Modernism, Realism, Conceptualism”. Bertold himself is a good-looking, lucky buffoon, and his character and voice are ill-equipped to handle the two historical tragedies the novel is draped across: King Henry’s role in the blinding and maiming of his own two little granddaughters, and then the loss of his heir, two of his other children and around 300 young nobles and crew in the wreck of the White Ship off Barfleur.