Matilda Empress by Lise Arin Genre: Historical Fiction
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 her father's double realm of England and Normandy and is promptly married against her will to Geoffrey, a minor continental nobleman. When she is 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 reins, and their passion fluctuates between hatred and obsession. The only hope in sight is Matilda and Stephen's two sons, whose rightful claim to the throne may finally end the bloody and endless war.
In the vein of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, Matilda Empress follows the real history of the early English monarchs, and what happens when a strong woman at the center of great upheaval refuses to play by the rules laid out for her.
I am the Dowager Empress Matilda, twenty-four years old and a widow. I travel on a ship bound for England, my homeland. I enjoy the sensation of speed, and relish the early morning fog that surrounds me like a cloak. I always stand upwind from the crew’s stench and stretch my face into the gusts of fresh air that swell our sails and tangle my veil and braids. I inhale deeply of the brisk breeze, for it is the breath of our Heavenly Father. To keep my mind occupied, I chant the blessings of Christ: “Tranquility, amour, purity--discipline, strength, form--rule, custom, terminus--road, counsellor, foundation--heart, blaze, majesty--essence, lion of creation.”
Each day I scan the sky for the sea birds that will herald the coastline, as vultures are the harbingers of a corpse. Death and upheaval are two faces of the same coin. Cancer defeated my husband at Utrecht, revoking my whole future. If I had had a son, I would have reigned in his stead, during his minority. Instead, the Duke of Saxony is elevated to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Having turned over most of the imperial regalia, all but one seal, I am put forth on the ocean, to a new beginning. Although many forget my English origins, I do not aspire to wed any of the minor German princes who compete for my hand, as a means to remain in my adopted country. Neither do I wish to immure myself in any European convent, to spend the rest of my days outside the ebb and ow of all the world’s affairs.
Over the years, my father’s letters brought me the tragic tidings of the death of my mother, and then of my only legitimate brother, drowned in the English Channel. His Majesty remarried, in the hope of siring another legitimate son. Unfortunately, his second queen has not born any offspring. Lately, the king sleepwalks, troubled by nightmares. He dreams that his peasants desert their furrows and his barons their fortresses, part of some violent revolt; he alone takes the field to reclaim the peace. In truth, his power is well established, yet fears for the future security of his empire plague him.
Now that I return to my native land, His Majesty determines that I shall be queen of England and Normandy. His barons must accept his daughter, if he is to have no son. This new destiny suits my aspiring spirit. Educated to reign, I am well used to wielding authority. I will serve my father’s family, as I did my husband’s. I will be a splendid queen, worthy of praise.
Often, I am spellbound by the waves breaking tumultuously around the prow of the ship. Do their force and crash echo my inner strength? Will I be able to sail into my father’s kingdom, and claim my due? Behind the stern of our vessel, the sea has been flattened so that a white trail of foam stretches out behind us. Need I fear that I am not the boat, but the water, deflated, suppressed, made quiet again?
I berate my own ignorance of astrology, examining the stars in the wide sky above me, but unable to decipher the meaning of the patterns in the firmament. Instead, I count the calls of the swooping gulls, prognosticating my future wealth and fertility. I study the glistening entrails of netted fish presented to me by the rough deck hands, and try to interpret therein the likelihood of my glorious ascendance to the throne.
I do not have complete confidence in what is to come. For who am I? What is my worth? I am the Holy Roman empress; there is none who sits higher, or comes between me and the throne of heaven. But I am my father’s unmarried daughter, to be disposed of according to his will. I can walk among the English court with my head held aloft, with none daring to meet my eyes, and yet I resume my place as an ivory pawn upon King Henry’s chess set. On the other side of Europe, I dispensed the law with an iron st. And now I shall be forced to sheath my mail in silk and manipulation. My face is struck from the imperial coinage. I have lost my currency.
I am the Holy Roman empress, but my greatness tumbles overboard, into the abyss of the ocean. To the world, I am no one, a child, a head without a crown. I must remember that I am stripped of my honors. It will serve me no purpose to cling to my former status, to remember with pride that I was divine. This will be a hard lesson, that of renunciation. How swiftly shall I learn it?
Lise Arin has a PhD in English Literature from Columbia, and an undergraduate degree in History and Literature from Harvard. She has two children, and lives with her husband in New York City. This is her first novel, although it has been in the making for twenty years. Please follow @lisearin on Instagram and Twitter.
What are some of your pet peeves?
I have many pet peeves. As I live in a city, littering, spitting and graffiti all torment me on the regular. I go crazy when people talk during the movies, and now only watch things on my iPad, in the peace and quiet of my house, which means I am the last one to see the latest films. So worth it! Phone solicitations should be illegal, and I have had to unplug my landline to stop the incessant, jarring sound of the ring. When my children were small, there was no hell like the school bake sale or field trip chaperone duty. I am not a fan of the Band-Aid floating in the pool, whipped cream suffocating an otherwise lovely dessert or someone spraying smelly, unhealthy aerosol products in the gym locker room. I don’t like to ruin my outfit with a nametag, and prefer that no one offer to help me with my crossword puzzles. If someone tells me a piece of gossip, it had better be true. Typos threaten to unhinge me, especially when I discover them in my own work. I don’t like the meaningless, almost rhetorical question: “How are you?” when I don’t know the person well enough to answer truthfully. I’ve been truthful here ;)
Have you written any other books that are not published?
When I was a small girl, I had a best friend named Christine, and apparently felt compelled to memorialize our banal suburban experiences in a series of novels, The Adventures of Lise and Christine. Although I gave myself top billing, I didn’t hog the limelight within the stories themselves. The books were booklets really, made of folded and stapled yellow legal paper. I also illustrated them, despite a dearth of artistic skills. I had forgotten all about these early literary endeavors until I discovered the cache of them in a box of childhood memorabilia. But it seems I was a writer born, not bred.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I am working on two more novels of historical fiction, one set in the fourteenth century, and one in the tenth. They are both about real women, but these two heroines are far less well-known than my Matilda. It is freeing to be able to imagine more, and keep to the facts a little less, although I would not enjoy having no facts at all to keep in mind. I like a set of rails to skim along, as I make my way through history. I have no intention of writing a book about the world I live in. My experience in the here and now might vary enormously from that of my readers, but my vision of the past cannot be proven false :) I admire, enormously, the authors who perfectly captured their social milieus: Austen, Trollope, Balzac, Henry James. But I don’t trust myself to make the manners and morals, the hypocrisies and tragedies of the current age abundantly clear. The past is a foreign country, so they say, but I am more at home there.
A day in the life of the author?
Dinner is the highlight of my day. Despite the fact that I am an extremely early riser (alarm set at 4:30!), I cannot work once I eat and drink a complete meal. Spare snacks are possible, and a copious amount of coffee is absolutely essential, but my systems all crash after the onrush of a lot of protein, carbs and sugar. Although I certainly pulled all-nighters in college and grad school, and did much homework after bedtime as a teen, the idea of thinking and remembering after dark seems impossible now. Even anticipating and planning dinner puts me off my writing game. It’s as if the physical me and the mental me can’t co-exist.