Okay, this is embarrassing to admit, but I picked up this book at the library book sale simply because I liked the cover. Because, just to be clear, I liked the colors used on the cover. They match my bedroom. Such an admission is almost as bad as revealing that when I first started buying wine, I chose bottles based on how pretty their labels were. But these days I'm no longer a novice oenophile, or bibliophile for that matter.
Much to my surprise, this big novel about Emma, Queen of Saxon England, is a good read. It opens in 1002, when Emma, thirteen-year-old sister of Richard, Duke of Normandy, arrives in England for her arranged marriage to the 34-year-old king, Aethelred (“the Unready” if you recall your history), and ends in 1042. It was interesting to recall that the first half of the book covers the same time frame as the Murasaki book, on the other side of the world.
This is Emma's story, her growth from a shy, scared girl into a competent, confidant queen.
I was interested in following Emma's thoughts about and participation in the continuing struggles over the crown of England, not just between Saxon and Dane, but the shifting alliances, the hesitation to invoke outright civil war, the treachery inspired by a lust for power. She recognises how seductive that lust can be. Speaking with Edmund, Aethelred's second son, she compares it to syphilis:
“It is a sorry fact . . . that wealthy and powerful men possess a driving need to acquire more of what they have already got. Corruption in a man is an insidious disease . . . the fire takes hold and consumes him from the inside out.”
But she herself is not immune. She enjoys exercising what power she has as queen, power that increases as Aethelred ages and declines. At first she needs it, to protect herself against her abusive husband. Later, she resolves to use it to protect her people, the English people whom she has grown to care for. She says she has become more English than the English. She also respects the fact that it is her duty as queen to protect her people, even if Aethelred seems to shirk his role as protector at every opportunity.
The chapters are quite short, only three or four pages and encompassing only a single scene, so they seem to fly by. If I have any complaint, it is that sometimes we whiz along from year to year, with only a single chapter/scene for each. It is far more satisfying when we pause for several of these short chapters in a row to follow out a story line.
I like that the cast of characters is fairly stable, given that it is a long book, even if few approach the depth and complexity of Emma's characterisation. Aethelred and his sons, the treacherous Eadric Streona, and the Danish invaders Swein and his son Cnut are well-drawn.
There is much death; the living conditions and brutal punishments of Saxon England would have ensured that, even without the near-constant warfare. But there is also honor and love and an attempt to understand what makes a life worth living.