Review of ‘Lionheart’ by Sharon Kay Penman


I very rarely give up on a book once I have started it but I came close with this one. During my apprenticeship as a writer of historical fiction two rules were drummed into me. 1) Show, don’t tell. 2) Maintain a consistent point of view. Penman breaks both these rules.

‘Show don’t tell’. The early pages of Lionheart contain long passages of exposition, sometimes in the authorial voice but often under the guise of one character telling another what has been happening earlier or elsewhere. Penman has done her research, and boy don’t you know it! Apart from filling in the political manoeuvrings of the Angevin dynasty there are disquisitions on various topics, such as the rulings of the Church regarding sex within marriage. I had the impression that this was a historical novel for people who don’t know much history and there were moments when it felt more like reading a history text book than a novel.

‘Point of view’. There are three options open to the author in this respect. One is the first person narrative, which allows for a very intimate relationship where the reader is privy to the narrator’s every thought; but it has its limitations in that the author can only relate what the narrator directly experiences, unless they learn about it at second hand. The second is the third person narrative where the author identifies with a particular character and we see most of the action through that person’s eyes, while allowing for digressions into scenes where the main narrator is not present. The third option is the third person omniscient, where it is the writer who is telling us the story and who knows exactly what every character is thinking and what is going on everywhere. This is the mode chosen by Penman, but while this allows her to flit from one character’s mind to another’s it does not give the reader any one person with whom he/she can identify and whose fate becomes of paramount importance. There is a plethora of characters right from the start of the book – Richard’s extended family; the English and French court; the rulers of Sicily and Cyprus and their offspring etc etc. The book abounds with ‘Count this’ and ‘Count that’, cousins and nephews and step-daughters and half-brothers, legitimate and illegitimate, each of them given their pedigree, until I very quickly gave up trying to remember who was who – and soon after that, to care.

A particular case in point comes right at the beginning of the book. I have always understood that readers are like Lorenz’s goslings – they imprint on the first character they encounter and wish to follow them through the story. Penman begins by introducing us to Alicia, an orphan girl caught up in a shipwreck and taken in by Joanna, Queen of Sicily. I immediately began to wonder what part this pathetic little character was going to play in the narrative. But within a chapter the focus had shifted to Joanna, and then, just as I began to get interested in her fate, we suddenly cut to France and the machinations of Richard’s court. We do not return to Joanna until a third of the way through the book and poor Alicia is never mentioned again, except for one or two casual asides in her role as a lady-in-waiting. Why begin your story with her, if she has no importance whatever in the main narrative?

The first third of the book is occupied with the in-fighting in Richard’s family and the story does not really get going until he finally starts out on the crusade. From that point the narrative picks up pace and certain personalities appear out of the general fog. Penman admits in her afterword that for a modern writer it is difficult to maintain the reader’s sympathies for one long story of fighting and bloodshed but she does succeed in upping the tension and there are some well realised battle scenes. She labours, however, under one disadvantage. We know how the story ends. We know Richard is not going to be killed; and we know he will not succeed in freeing Jerusalem from the Saracens. So it is hard to build any dramatic tension. This might have been easier if there was one fictional character with whom we have identified and whose ultimate fate might be uncertain.

This is an unashamedly romanticised version of history. Penman admits that she did not originally like Richard very much until subsequent research changed her mind. In this book, he is the ultimate hero figure – brave, daring, honourable and clever. Perhaps. But he is also the man who ordered 2,500 helpless prisoners to be killed as a strategic necessity. Historians differ about whether he was a good king and a man to be admired. Penman points out, justifiably, that he was a man of his time when the main duty of a king was to lead his army – but whatever the facts of the matter, I found this Richard a bit too good to be true.

The romanticism is most blatant in the portrayal of Richard’s relationship with his Spanish bride, Berengaria. She is shown as a gentle, biddable girl who willingly leaves her home and family with the prospect of becoming Queen of England and who rapidly falls in love with her husband. Richard admittedly is not portrayed as being in love with her, but he is shown as a skilful and considerate lover in bed. The facts were probably otherwise. Berengaria was a helpless pawn in the political machinations of the time and we have no reason to believe that she fell in love with the man she was forced to marry. And as for Richard, his desires may have been quite different. There are historians who think he was probably gay. Penman discounts this. But whatever the truth is, there were no children from the union and no evidence that the marriage was ever consummated. Certainly after his final return to his own domains Richard neglected Berengaria shamefully and never treated her as his queen.

The same romantic attitude is evidenced in the relationship of Henri of Champagne and Isabella, the only legitimate claimant to the throne of Jerusalem. After the murder of her husband, Conrad, she is forced within a week to marry Henri, although pregnant with Conrad’s child. Penman would have us believe that there is an immediate erotic attraction between the two and gives us a detailed account of their wedding night to prove it. I am afraid that at this point the suspension of belief required to enjoy fiction failed me.

I found the author’s manner of writing dialogue uncomfortable a times. American locutions like ‘gotten’ do not sit well with pseudo-antique terms like ‘mayhap’ for perhaps or ‘naught’ or ‘wroth’ meaning angry. And I disliked her expedient of shortening names to avoid confusion – Geoff for Geoffrey, for example, strikes too modern a note. Maybe people of that period did have pet names for each other, but we do not know them and they were probably quite different from ones we would use now.

If you want a good, red-blooded, swashbuckling story with lots of historical background thrown in, this is for you. If you want a warts and all, realistic account of a particularly bloodthirsty episode in human history, look elsewhere.