Matilda Empress by Lise Arin
Matilda, a twelfth-century Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and daughter of Henry I, is twenty-four years old and a widow. She returns to inherit her father's double realm of England and Normandy, but is promptly married against her will to Geoffrey, a minor continental nobleman. Absent from England at the time of her father's death, Matilda loses her throne to her cousin, Stephen, despite their ongoing and secret love affair.
For almost twenty years, anarchy reigns throughout the empire, and their illicit passion fluctuates between hatred and obsession. The only hope is the Empress's growing faith and their illegitimate son, whose rightful claim to the English throne could finally halt the bloody, endless war.
In the vein of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, Matilda Empress illuminates the real history of the early English monarchs, while exploring what is at stake when a strong woman at the center of great upheaval refuses to play by the rules laid out for her.
Matilda Empress Press & Reviews
Matilda Empress is a book about a woman who does not get what she wants. Early on, she debates the merits of acceding to the restrictions imposed upon her by historical circumstances and patriarchal authorities beyond her control. Almost immediately, she considers an alternate path, one of resistance and self-empowerment. Because the Middle Ages were not a time when female self-actualization and daughterly rebellion were celebrated from the castle or hovel roof tops, Matilda’s decisions to fight for her political rights and the man she loves are couched in heroic, mythic, and archetypal terms. When, ultimately, she faces multiple failures of love and ambition, her resignation and self-abnegation cannot be expressed in a way that we, as a modern audience, might expect. A woman of that period, even an empress, had to come to terms with grief and disappointment within the constructs of her time, and religion was the most available trope she could employ to express her abasement and resignation while still laying claim to public, social value.
In some ways, Matilda’s career trajectory reminds me of my own. When I began to tell her story, over twenty years ago, I had big dreams―and an inner conviction that I was meant to be a writer. Once I had a draft in hand, and, coincidentally, a new baby in my lap, I sent the manuscript out into the world with every intention of receiving congratulatory letters and phone calls. The Internet had not yet been invented, so all the bad news I received trickled in slowly, if the recipients of the book even bothered to respond. And there I was, not an author, but a mother, choosing to deal with the nullification of my dearest hopes by burying myself in this other, draining new job. Another writer, famous yet surprisingly bitter, told me that historical fiction was of no interest to the marketplace and insisted that I would be better off shelving my project. And so, like Matilda, I spent a period of my life sequestered in the domestic sphere, trying to forget that I had had another vision of myself.
As the years passed, ten years, I grew increasingly abject and thoroughly pissed about my own passivity and inertia. Very few people knew my secret ambition, but the failure to achieve it still rankled. I found that I could not accept the status quo, could not let my own plans evaporate into nothing more than a daydream. Somehow, somehow, I garnered the mental strength to lay claim to my own future. I opened the proverbial Pandora’s box, in my case a dusty hanging-file cabinet, and sat down to read my novel.
I wish I could say that I found it a masterpiece, but this would be far from the truth. I was embarrassed by my own shallow understanding of motherhood, for one, and certainly by my emotional distance from the concepts of futility and despair. What had I known about those when I first wrote the book, flush as I was with youth and promise?
So I drafted it again, and again, as my daughter and later my son grew up in the rooms next door. Sometimes months passed between stretches of productive work, as my children needed me to force them to practice their instruments or grudgingly escort them to birthday parties. Finally, I had the wherewithal, the courage, to send off a new version, only to be faced with more rejections. The more forthright parties told me that they did not care enough about my heroine’s fate, because they could not relate to the angst and anxieties of an empress, too haughty for their liking, or even their empathy.
How could I make people understand that queens have problems too, and are as human as the rest of us? How could I help my readers appreciate all the difference eight centuries make? “The past is a foreign country,” as L. P. Hartley said, and “they do things differently there.” When a medieval nobleman was unhappy, he did not consult with a therapist, he went out on a public crusade, and set to killing Infidels, for good measure. If his wife’s life was not what it should be, she repented, in front of their friends and family, for not living up to their cultural ideals, and she swore to atone, by lighting candles, indulging in acts of self-mutilation, building churches, or kissing the sores of lepers. Every bit of it was ritualized, concretized into meaning, and was sure to be more effective because it was watched and on display. The most private acts of prayer and confession were observed and remade into legend, proof of the feudal nobility’s worth and conducive to the stability of medieval society.
Still, I took my readers’ professional advice. They wanted more of Matilda, from the inside out. There was no inside out, during the twelfth-century, so I gave them, and you, the outside in. When my empress itches to take revenge on her enemies, she casts a spell. When she lusts for her beloved, she puts on a kick-ass, extravagant gown, and perfumes herself with herbs. When she is bored, she feasts on spiced meats or wears out her slippers in the garden. When she is at peace, she communes with her God and her saints, and they bring her the consolation and serenity she has earned.
If you have bought this book, I hope that you will treasure it as a triumph of the will and the imagination over stagnation, dismissal, and rebuff. Matilda only reigned briefly, and she never won over her true love, but herewith she tells her story into history, over and against the objections of a famous troubadour who wanted to tell it for her. Twenty years after I started it, I insist on unscrolling for you my version of these historical events, not only reinterpreting and reestablishing a disempowered queen, but recreating myself in the process.
Read on, and be inspired to fight for your own dreams. Give them up only on your own terms, and exchange them only for something of greater value. Define yourself how you will; write your own narrative. Hang on tightly to your own crown, the one you were born to wear. You are Matilda Empress.
Topics/Themes for Book Club Discussions of Matilda Empress
Matilda Empress is literary, and will appeal to readers who want a well-researched, intelligent, poetic journey through the twelfth-century. But it is also a bit of a romp, and there is no denying that it is a romance. Did you find that the book managed to be both entertaining, readable and intellectually stimulating? Were you in it for the historically accurate information or the drama, sex and violence?
While the period details are as correct as I could make them, I did bend the truth in certain ways. And although most of the events depicted in my book did occur, particularly those of historical significance, I tampered a bit with chronology, conflated some secondary characters, invented a few minor players, and completely imagined all the private moments unlikely to have been recorded for posterity. The “true story” of my heroine is still somewhat obscured by gaps in the historical record and centuries of conflicting interpretations of the surviving documents. Overall, I used the most interesting “facts” to construct a solid framework for my house of fiction, then fashioned its more fluid walls with a tangled thatch of love, ambition, honor, duty, resignation, and faith. To what degree is that ok with you, as a reader?
The novel addresses directly the issue of female ambition thwarted/interrupted and concerns the difficult fate of a strong woman who wants to refuse to play by the rules, but finds that she can't. Was Matilda a relatable heroine for a modern reader? Is she hitting a glass ceiling? Was she unfairly disempowered, or can any blame be cast her way?
Matilda sacrifices her throne, willingly, to her son. Was she a bad mother, or a good one? What can she do, when her politics and her passions collide, when her motherly love undercuts her personal goals, when the society she lives in would rather she be an icon of suffering and redemption than a fully-realized, powerful woman?
The book unspools as a memoir, and the empress is compelled by a narrative drive to tell her own story, to write her own song. Was her version of events truer than Bernard de Ventadour’s?
There is a lot of magic in the novel, and a lot of religion, particularly concerning the cult of the Virgin Mary. In the middle ages, there was quite a bit of overlap, in practice if not in theory. Science has taken the place of magic for we moderns, but we still struggle to synthesize these two different ways of understanding ourselves and the natural world. Was it easy to see how my characters blurred the distinction between actively attempting to control their bodies and environments, and passively hoping that heavenly powers would bring them happiness, health and success?