Friday, 5 July 2013

Kim's Review : The Conqueror

I first read Georgette Heyer, way back in the early 90's, because my mum and her sisters had some of them in my Grandparents library. (Yes, our family has a long history of Bibliophilia)

What I loved about her books was the period settings, the historical references, the believable characters and the sheer depth and range of descriptions, that transported me directly into those eras. So meticulous was she, that Georgette Heyer is considered the innovator of the historical romance genre and its subgenre - Regency romance.

Heyer's strongest suit was the meticulousness of her research. Given that she lived in the pre-internet, pre-google search era (1902-1974), it is not surprising that at the time of her death, she had over 1,000 historical reference books and it was widely accepted that no one in England at that time, knew more about Regency language than Heyer.

I'd been wanting to read more Georgette Heyer, ever since Arrow started reprinting her books. But this idea lay on the backburner for awhile. I bought 2 last year, but only just got around to reading the first.

Georgette Heyer wrote "The Conqueror" in 1931, over 900 years after the events described in the book.

This book tells of William the Conqueror, bastard son of Robert the Magnificent - Duke of Normandy. Since Robert died when William was around 7 years old, with no legitimate sons, William succeeds him as the Duke of Normandy.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the fictional character Raoul de Harcourt. Raoul is captivated by William at a young age and enters into his service. He comes to the notice of William who realises that Raoul has been sleeping unbidden outside his bedroom to keep him safe from would-be traitors and murderers (earning him the sobriquet - "the Watcher") and actually saves his life by doing so.

Raoul becomes William’s favourite, and serves with him in all his military campaigns and is the closest thing to a friend, to the calculating and political William. Raoul also provides the reader with a more humane world view and is a more endearing character than William himself.

The book which starts from Williams birth, tells of how he regains control of his Duchy on attaining adulthood. He then unifies and strengthens Normandy and finally is crowned King of England with the blessings of Rome after defeating Harold Goodwinesson.

The Conqueror offers an interesting contrast between Harold Goodwinesson and William the Conqueror. While Harold is loved and respected by his people, William inspires respect through fear. Harold reacts emotionally, whereas William is extremely cold, calculating and plans everything in great detail, he does not let his emotions interfere in his decisions in any which way, except in the case of his courtship and marriage to Matilda of Flanders.

And what a strange courtship it was. Since she refused in open court to marry him as she was of pure Royal blood (her Father was Earl of Belgium and her mother was the sister of the Queen of France) and he was a bastard, whose grandfather was a tanner. On hearing of this insult, William rode from Rouen to Flanders, rushed into her castle, whipped her with his riding crop and then pretended to forget about her for a couple of years!

The book is generally true to history, except for a few characters that have been created to smooth the story along. Also, while the book says that Judith who married Harold's brother Tostig was Matilda's sister, history says she was most probably Matilda's aunt.

The Conqueror is an interesting read but slightly difficult because of the language and structuring of sentences and period dialogues. (Read an excerpt here to see what I mean) But its worth persisting.

My most interesting takeaway from this book, is that although the Normans ruled England for almost a century, they soon lost not only England, but also their identity in Normandy. Normandy was retaken by France and amalgamated into the French culture.

I wish there were more books like this about Indian History too. The fights and squabbles between the various rulers in Europe are so similar in ways to the skirmishes and wars between local Indian rulers and chieftains. They would definitely make for interesting reading.

Rating : 3.8 / 5

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