Review: When Christ and his Saints Slept

When Christ and his Saints Slept
Sharon Kay Penman
Ballantine Books, 2009 (1995)
9780345396686
Purchased new trade paperback

The hall was a scene of chaos. The other women had not been as punctilious about propriety as Maude, and had hastened downstairs in various stages of undress. Everywhere she looked, she saw unbound hair, bare feet, husbands and wives entwined in joyful, welcoming embraces. Her entrance went almost unnoticed in the confusion, and it was several moments before Robert disentangled himself from Amabel’s arms and shoved his way through to her side. Maude reached out, taking his hand in hers. “Thank you,” she said, “for winning back my throne.”

I do not know where to begin in describing how utterly disappointed I am in this book, the first in Penman’s trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have to praise Penman for her thorough research and the way she brought twelfth-century France and England to life; as a historical novel, When Christ and his Saints Slept succeeds. As a work of fiction, however, it is a mess.

The central story is, ostensibly, about the struggle for the throne of England following the death of Henry I in 1135. Despite having fathered numerous children out of wedlock, Henry’s sole legitimate son had drowned in the White Ship disaster fifteen years earlier. The king was thus forced to name his daughter Maude (also known as Matilda) as heir to the throne of England and the duchy of Normandy. Perhaps to secure her succession, Henry also arranged her marriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, heir to the County of Anjou. (Maude had previously been married to Henry V of the Holy Roman Empire until his death in 1125; they had no surviving children, but Maude often acted as regent for her husband and acquired the title of “empress,” a title she would insist on retaining even after her marriage to Geoffrey.)

Henry I’s barons opposed Maude’s accession to the throne, however, and so soon after the king’s death Stephen, Count of Mortain and Maude’s cousin (his mother was Henry’s sister; both Maude and Stephen were thus grandchildren of William the Conqueror) seized the throne. For the next 19 years, armies loyal to the two claimants laid waste to England and Normandy. While Matilda pursued her claim until 1147, beginning in 1149 her eldest son, Henry, took up the struggle for himself, eventually succeeding Stephen as king in 1154 and thus establishing the Plantagenet dynasty that would rule England for the next 300 years.

When Christ and his Saints Slept opens with the sinking of the White Ship and concludes with Henry and Eleanor’s coronation. While it makes sense thematically, structurally this results in a book that is essentially two combined into one: the first, greater part focuses on Maude’s claim to the throne; then there is an interlude involving a fictional half-brother of Maude’s; and finally the latter portion – a little less than 200 pages out of 750-plus – deals with Henry’s pursuit of the claim, though at first glance it seems to be more about Henry and Eleanor. (I’ll admit that I quit reading at this point; I had bought the book thinking it was about Maude and Stephen, and so was very disappointed when Henry and Eleanor took over.)

The book’s greatest flaws are its unevenness and its lack of coherence. As mentioned above, structurally it is actually two separate stories, or rather one story and the beginning of another. In addition, there is no coherent point of view to present the events taking place. Multiple points of view are necessary to tell such a complex story, but we hear from so many different people – some utterly pointless, with no discernible influence on the story that not only is the book weighted down with filler but the reader doesn’t even get to truly know the principal characters.

Who are the principal characters? Presumably Maude and Stephen, with Henry (both Henry I and Henry II, acting as bookends); Maude’s half-brother Robert, the Earl of Gloucester and leader of the forces supporting her claim; and perhaps Maude’s and Stephen’s respective spouses in strong supporting roles (I think one could even make a case for Robert as a principal character). Yet the character whose thoughts and perspectives we are most privy to is one who never even existed: Ranulf, another of Maude’s half-brothers, created by Penman from one of Henry I’s numerous by-blows. This might not have been so objectionable if, first, we weren’t first introduced to Ranulf when he’s about three years old, and over the course of 500 pages we learn more about his love life than about why he supports his sister’s claim despite his misgivings. Those who ought to be the principal characters are presented only superficially, with Maude given the least attention, a failing I cannot excuse. (I also regret that more attention was not given to Robert. In one scene in the middle of the book Robert confronts Maude with his disappointment that he had been denied a claim to the throne because he was illegitimate, as counterpoint to the rebellion against her because she was a woman; it was probably the single most illuminating scene in the entire book, and I wish there had been more like it, both leading up to that clash of ideology and later reflecting back on it. A story that focused on Maude and Robert would have been awesome.)

Another of the book’s great weaknesses is in the presentation of events. I cannot blame Penman for not wanting to treat every skirmish between Stephen’s and Maude’s forces in detail. Unfortunately, however, too often she resorts to having someone enter a scene with a breathless report about some crucial event that occurred off-stage, and then move on to the next scene – which might be set weeks or even months later. Consequently there’s no causality, no sense of consequences, and character development is stunted. It’s as if the first 500 pages of When Christ and his Saints Slept is nothing more than a very extended prelude to the story of Henry II.

Finally, I have to complain about the unevenness in the writing style. At times comma splices are all over the place; there were pages where I found numerous examples, sometimes one after another, and then 50-75 pages would pass before the next cluster. More attention seems to have been given to scenes that focus on invented characters, whereas those that are more directly pertinent to the events upon which the book is based are given short shrift. At random moments an excerpt from one of the chronicles of the age is included. I think this could have been an effective narrative device had it been employed more consistently, but instead it seems to function as more of a shortcut, to allow the narrative to skip over a period of time or to avoid having to place events in a broader context. Finally, while I can’t really explain how this is, it was clear to me from the tone of the writing once the focus shifted to Henry and Eleanor that they were what Penman really wanted to be writing about. Once more, I was left with the feeling that Maude’s and Stephen’s story was merely a prelude to Henry and Eleanor.

I often come across complaints about authors who’ve reached a certain level of prestige (generally based on sales) whose later books seem not to have been given the same degree of editorial scrutiny as their earlier works. I’ve even been known to make similar comments. When Christ and his Saints Slept falls towards the beginning of Penman’s authorial career – it was first published 15 years ago, but prior to that she’d published The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, and her Welsh trilogy; since then she’s published the later two installments in the Plantagenet trilogy and a four-book mystery series also set in the twelfth century. I can only guess what sort of input the editor had in structuring When Christ and his Saints Slept. However, due to the structural flaws, superficial characterization of those who should have been the principal players, abundance of filler, and inconsistencies in narrative and writing style, I wish more had been done to get this book into shape. The contest between Maude and Stephen for the throne of England is, in my opinion, one of the more fascinating and epic stories of the Middle Ages, and one that gets little attention from writers. When Christ and his Saints Slept could have been a great historical novel, but instead it turned out to be one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read.

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