Jonathan's Reviews > When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman
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's review
Sep 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: general-fiction
Recommended to Jonathan by: Jennifer Freitag
Recommended for: History buffs
Read on March 01, 2012 , read count: 1

It’s as epic as medieval history gets – a power struggle for the throne of England – yet despite its scope and length, When Christ and His Saints Slept remains surprisingly intimate. Sharon Kay Penman accomplishes this task by keeping the focus on the characters, writing from an immediate perspective. Occasionally some minor (and thus invented) character will intrude for a scene or so, but most often we are concerned with the historical personae around whom the story revolves. Briefly, the principals are the Empress Matilda (aka Maude), daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror, to whom her father forced his vassals to swear an oath of fealty, and her cousin Stephen, who upon Henry’s death claimed the throne with the support of those same vassals, none of whom wanted to bow to a woman. And thus the stage is set for a decade-long showdown. But if the narrative unfolds in the arenas of politics, diplomacy, and martial confrontation, the story itself revolves always around the characters.

Fictionalizing actual historical figures seems, to me at least, a thorny task at best. The objectivist in me shrinks from deviating in the smallest detail from the truth of history (which may or may not correspond to the historical record), let alone at attributing motive or feeling to a person who, in actuality, must have had them for his own but in most cases took them to the grave. In the present case, however, the fictions don’t feel out of place. Perhaps it’s the distance – a millennium certainly obscures many details. In large part it’s the deftness of Penman’s touch; though by no means light – there are a handful of cringe-worthy thoughts or sentences handed out – the characterizations are consistent not just within themselves but with what the reader expects from humanity. One doesn’t wonder that Maude’s repeated frustrations at the hands of the prevailing patriarchal society leave her exhausted and somewhat bitter, even if the idea carries a hint of anachronism. Nor is one surprised that Stephen’s well-intentioned weakness leaves him oft exploited by those less scrupulous. And Penman’s characterization is certainly intimate in all senses of the word – if half the book unfolds in the council chamber or on the battlefield, the other half takes place in the bedroom (apparently there wasn’t much to do in the 12th century but drink, fight, and screw). Again, one is hardly surprised; in an age dominated by primogeniture the politics of matrimonial alliance held much sway, though perhaps not as much as that exercised over the human consciousness by sexuality in general.

Because this is, in the largest sense of the word, a true story, it is easy to identify with most of the characters, though none are particularly sympathetic. And this is what makes this book worth reading: it might not be history, strictly speaking, but it feels like history. There’s no rooting interest, really, save to know how we got from there to here. And the journey is an enjoyable one, not only because it dramatizes events that actually occurred, but because it breathes life, however fleeting, into the names in the dustier tomes. History and literature teach the same lessons: in both can be seen the ambition and ambivalence and futility of man. When the two are combined with such skill and passion as they are here, the lesson is powerful indeed.
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message 1: by Mirriam (new) - added it

Mirriam Neal In my experience with biographies and/or historical tales, they are either divided between colorless fact or fictional trappings. I'm excited to see one that manages to recount history and remain enjoyable!

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