A semi-biographical historical novel, The Irish Princess is set in 12th century Ireland, before and during the Anglo-Norman conquest. Its titular heroine, Aoife MacMurchada, spends her adolescence and early twenties navigating the era’s political turmoil and violence, guided by her unshakeable loyalty to her family and determination to survive.
I read a few Elizabeth Chadwick novels several years ago, and my then-adolescent self was thoroughly impressed. Sadly, I was not so enamoured this time. Possibly, I have become more picky, but I think it might be that this book is written in a different vein to Shadows and Strongholds, with less emphasis on the romantic subplots I rated so much.
Aoife is an engaging heroine, and whilst her experiences as an adolescent are far removed from the majority of teenage experiences today, Chadwick opts for an honest portrayal of the times, in which girls were elevated to womanhood at a much younger age than we now consider mature.
“I shall honour them and bury with grief those who die. There is always a price to pay, daughter, remember that, but if you are willing to pay, then it is worth the sacrifice and never to be regretted.”
The best historical fiction is evocative, and conjures the past like a spell. There is certainly attention to detail in this book when it comes to the fashions and sensibilities of the era, but I did not feel any spellbinding connection to the setting. There is little description of the landscapes the characters move through, so in my mind it was all just vaguely Medieval, rather than rooted in a specific time and place.
The emphasis on the biographical aspects of the narrative make for a limited plot. The Irish Princess reads as a stream of events, and whilst this is true to life, the excitement factor is limited by the lack of any sustained tension. There is no real overarching narrative. Things happen, and Aoife moves on, growing wiser with time, but never fundamentally changing.
The characters are all evocations of real people, and like real people, most are morally grey. Aoife bears the standard romanticised hallmarks of a Medieval heroine – exceptional beauty, and noble blood – but her personality does occasionally show the taint of the violence she is exposed to during her upbringing. Personally, I would have liked to see more of her wily political dexterity, and less of her relationship with Richard de Clare, which I found romantically underwhelming.
Aoife buried her face against her upraised knees. She barely remembered what Richard de Clare looked like beyond a distant memory of rich auburn hair and piercing sea-coloured eyes… ‘Please make him go away,’ she whispered, and then: ‘Please make him stay.’
I do not think this numbers among the most intelligent and sensitive novels I have read, and for all the strength of its research, it lacks a certain delicacy. One of the characters is blinded, and whilst I could understand why they felt their world had ended, the narrative makes no effort to distance itself from tacit agreement with that sentiment. Mildly ableist, I think, and the book takes a similarly cavalier attitude to rape. Ultimately, the book reflects the attitudes of the harsher time it is writing about, but there is a sense that the author did not pause to consider the implications of Aoife’s undying admiration of her father, despite the narrative mentioning, offhandedly, his history as a marauding rapist.
The writing is reasonable, and Chadwick has a solid grasp on her characters. They tend to inhabit fixed roles, and not to develop beyond (or even challenge) the established confines of those roles, but the book does a decent enough job of presenting its historical figures in sympathetic context, and I think Aoife’s mixed feelings about her arranged marriage make for an interesting inner conflict during the early chapters.
Despite half-hearted efforts at chemistry, this is not a romance for the ages, instead presenting marriage as marriage often was in olden times – an act of family alliance against a cruel, vicious world. Ultimately, Aoife was a woman of her time, given the choices of her day. The writing is somewhat flat, and the characters’ emotions are regularly spoon-fed to the reader, but I think Chadwick succeeds in portraying her subject with respectful authenticity.