Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lady Sybil's Choice by Emily Sarah Holt

Recently I got the chance to read another one of ES Holt's fascinating and painstakingly-researched historical novels. Lady Sybil's Choice, set in twelfth century France and Jerusalem, follows the early fortunes of Guy of Lusignan through the eyes of a young fictional sister, Elaine of Lusignan.

Elaine of Lusignan is precocious, fiercely intelligent, and passionately attached to her elder brother Guy. When he travels to the Holy Land to fight the Saracens and make a name for himself, Elaine comforts herself with the promise that she will one day go to join him, at the same time that she tries to quiet the appetite in her soul for something more than this life can give. When she finally arrives in Jerusalem with her foppish brother Amaury, Elaine finds that she has already been supplanted in Guy's affections by the lovely Sybil, sister of the leper king of Jerusalem. She learns to love Sybil, but how will her frail peace of mind, which depends on earthly things, cope with the looming storms on the horizon?

I was interested in reading this book because the history of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, also known as Outremer, is one of the most romantic and hopeless last stands in history. While a lot of attention is given to the Third Crusade, dominated as it was by those larger-than-life, legendary personalities of Richard Coeur-de-lion and Saladin, hardly any attention is paid to the hundred-year reign of the kings of Jerusalem over a feudal colony of men who, at vast expense and for the purpose of freeing the once-Christian lands of the Near and Middle East from the oppression of Islam, travelled far from their homes and native climates to settle and raise families on the frontlines of East and West. The conquest of the Christian East by Islam in the 600s was tragic, but so was the fall of Outremer in 1187.

Lady Sybil's Choice is set in the years leading up to Queen Sybilla's accession to the throne of Jerusalem in 1186, and the political intrigue surrounding that event which threatened her marriage to Guy of Lusignan, who she devotedly loved. It's a fascinating snapshot of many of the attitudes of the times, and the narrator--clever, iconoclastic, and questioning Elaine--is engaging to read about. However the book is not primarily about the history of the period, which I found a little disappointing. It's primarily about the spiritual journey of Elaine--hampered by the idiosyncracies of the church of the day--to repentance and saving faith. To this all the other personages and events of the story take second place. For example, why was ES Holt (a formidable and discerning historian in her own right) such a fan of Guy of Lusignan (whom most historians credit with weakness, indecision, and a hand in the bad tactical decisions which lead to the defeat at Hattin), and so antagonistic to Raymond of Tripoli? I most eagerly read the Historical Appendix at the end of the book to glean the few clues she left.

In the end, I felt that the story of Elaine's spiritual journey in pre-Reformation Christendom had been told against a too brilliant and tantalising backdrop. Although the book wraps up well with a fascinating and (surprisingly) historically factual climax, which ties the story and backdrop together neatly, I was left with more questions than answers about this historical period.

This said, the treatment of pre-Reformation Christendom by a well and truly Protestant novelist is very interesting in this book. While I'd be surprised if true belief was as difficult to find in those days as ES Holt suggests in the novel, I generally found the novel even-handed and historically well-founded. One of the things I most appreciated about this was that although the medieval Church is depicted with all its faults (and perhaps with too few of its virtues to outweigh them) the characters who are really Christians remain part of the Church of the day; they are not time travellers from the 1500s.

ES Holt also does a good job of evoking the piquant and distinctive way the medievals viewed history:
There was the legend of Monseigneur Saint Gideon, who drove the heathen Saracens out of his country with a mere handful of foot-soldiers; and that of Monseigneur Saint David, who, when he was but a youth, fought with the Saracen giant, Count Goliath, who was forty feet high.... The story that Amaury liked best of all was about Madame Esther, the Queen of Persia; and how she intreated her royal lord for the lives of certain knights that had been taken prisoners....
This is, of course, not the way that we have been brought up to read Scripture, and while ES Holt intended to point out that the stories had passed into oral tradition by this time, becoming distorted, I still can't help wondering if ready access to Scripture would have made the medievals more prosaic about their Bible heroes. I doubt it! "Certain knights that had been taken prisoners" does seem roughly analogous to "the enslaved Jewish nation"!

In the end, there was a lot to like about Lady Sybil's Choice. But I'm still looking around for a good history or novel on Outremer.


Christina Baehr said...

From memory (it's been a while), Holt's novels fall into two categories: faith biographies in fascinating times, and historical overviews without much of character development to hold them together. I prefer the latter, but I understand why you were frustrated missing out on the action. ;) I haven't seen a timeline of her publishing dates, but I can bet they date from the time of the Oxford Movement, as she seems very concerned to show people how great Protestantism is. What I find really inspirational about her is her exquisite research and grasp of period detail (pre the electronic age) and her fearlessness in taking on historical sacred cows (Edward II a homosexual? Holt believes he was a Lollard!).

Suzannah said...

Those two things are exactly what I've enjoyed in her novels so far. I was really impressed by her research in The Harvest of Yesterday and her willingness to give a kinder view of the heroine of that novel. And her historical research is just superb. It's the stories she seems to have trouble with. I can't decide if I'd rather she stuck to straight history or straight novel!

Oh, another thing I might add--I love the unusual and obscure characters and events she writes about. I mean, the political intrigues surrounding Sybilla and Guy's accession? Wouldn't those normally get buried by Hattin?

Christina Baehr said...

Oops!! Just realized I messed up my latter/former in my comment. Keeping me humble. ;)


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