Books: The Secret Eleanor

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The Secret Eleanor

Exclusive interview with novelist Cecilia Holland and a review of her new novel about  the illicit romance between Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Queen of France, and Henry, the future King of England *** 3 stars

By Gabrielle Pantera

HOLLYWOOD, CA (Gosh!TV) 3/17/2011 – “For a while I kept dreaming about parts of the story,” says The Secret Eleanor author Cecilia Holland. “Sometimes I dreamed I was one of the characters, but mostly it seemed to be happening right in front of me.I loved going to sleep every night. Sometimes I dreamt about scenes I hadn’t written yet. It peaked right after I was in Poitiers. It was like being haunted.” Poitiers is a city in western France where Eleanor often resided.

The Secret Eleanor explores her romance with Henry D’Anjou, the future king of England. At the time, Eleanor is married to the king of France with whom she has two daughters. Eleanor of Aquitaine is a powerful woman who had led her own troops in battle. When during the Second Crusade the opportunity came to retake Aleppo from the Muslims, the military goal of the campaign by Papal decree, her husband Louis VII insisted instead on a disastrous attack on the neutral city of Damascus. Eleanor is one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages.

Now contemptuous of her husband’s ability to run France, Eleanor is entranced by Henry D’Anjou and is willing to do anything for them to be together. The question is, will the wily Henry marry her after she’s no longer married to Louis VII or is it all a game to him? No matter what happens, Eleanor’s decision to pursue Henry will change the history of two powerful countries.

Holland says that writing a book about Eleanor was suggested by a friend. “He had read a lot about Eleanor and become mesmerized. I started reading and also fell victim. But I couldn’t make the story work. First it was too long, and then, when I cut it back to the year when she divorced and remarried, there wasn’t enough actual story. I wrote several versions before I hit on the story I finally used, and several versions of that.”

It took years to write The Secret Eleanor. “The thematic idea took a long time to develop,” says Holland. “The writing itself was strenuous and fun. That was the best thing, the study and then the way the story grew. Some of the characters changed very radically from version to version. The girl Claire, for instance, and the knight de Rancun.The three love affairs, entwined and the last to fit in was Claire and the troubadour Thomas, so that’s actually my favorite part of the whole book.”

For research, Holland read the major modern biographies of Eleanor, then went through the chronicles. She looked mainly to those of William of Newburgh, on line in the Medieval Sourcebook. “Bernard of Clairvaux appears in a lot of contemporary documents, things about the Crusades, about the councils,” says Holland.

“Most of the good chronicles are online or published somewhere,” says Holland. “Living in rural California, I use interlibrary loan a lot. I’m not sure what the value would be of looking at a will she signed, or something like that. What would have been useful is a portrait but none exists and anyhow the 12th century didn’t think in those terms. Even the people who praised her looks didn’t say what she looked like.”

Early on Holland found a photograph in a magazine and clipped it out and used that as her vision of what Eleanor looked like. “I never found out who the model was but she had red hair and bold green eyes; she was beautiful.”

“Walter Map’s Of the Foibles of Courts is a book of gossip and you can’t beat gossip for good historical detail,” says Holland. “I went to France and stayed around Poitiers a while and walked all over the city, which is charming, full of the past, full of the most friendly people.  I went to Fontevraud Abbey and tried to trace her route south on the flight from Blois after the divorce.”

Holland found her agent, Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary Management in New York, through a friend.

At this time The Secret Eleanor isn’t being adapted for film or television.

Cecelia Holland’s first novel, Firedrake, was published in 1966 while she was working as a clerk at Brentano’s bookstore in Manhattan.  She’s been a full-time professional writer ever since, with more than thirty novels published. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981. For writing Jerusalem, the local order of the Knights Templar gave her a plaque.

Holland lives in Fortuna, a small town near the coast in northern California. She was born in Henderson, Nevada. She is married and has three daughters. She has an interest in ships and likes to row.

The Secret Eleanor by Cecilia Holland
Paperback, 368 pages, Publisher: Berkley Trade; 1 edition (August 3, 2010) Language: English, ISBN9780425234501 $15.00

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