Saturday, 10 October 2009

Review of 'The Gascon' by John Colin Penford

I had a real stroke of luck a couple of weeks ago – and got my hands on a copy of ‘The Gascon’ by John Colin Penford. I’ve just finished reading it and somewhat enjoyed it – even though it’s one of the most fictionalised accounts of the life of Piers I’ve ever read. It strays very far from what we know about Piers’ life and its chronology of events is all over the place, plus there are many fictionalised characters in it.

At the heart of the novel is an ancient blood feud, involving Piers mysterious family. He is descended fro a fictional family called the de Stirlemont, who are pursued by another family, the de Senlos. Piers’ mother manages to flee, is taken in by a peasant couple where she gives birth to Piers and then dies. Realising her identity, they fear for the child and place him in a monastery where is brought up by the monks. Yes, seriously, Piers is a God-fearing boy living in a monastery! Penfold has gone for Piers as being dark-haired and with piercing eyes, who is very pretty and much lusted after by some of the inhabitants of the monastery. He is given a classical education, meets a strange princess called Berengaria and becomes the object of chivalrous love by one of the young squires. Aged 12, Piers suffers a horrendous sexual assault, flees the monastery and meets Aubrey de Grey who is on a mission in France. Piers, having been cloistered in the monastry, is na├»ve and has been scared off women for life with tales of sin by his tutor Ivor. Aubrey feels compassion for Piers, and takes him to England as his ward. All Piers has with him are some silver coins and a mysterious ring and letter that give clues to his background.

In England, Sir Aubrey arranges for Piers to receive training to be a knight and finds his feeling change towards Piers, and he seduces him. He cannot stand the thought of Piers wanting to win his spurs and does all he can to stop Piers joining him on the battlefield. One day, Piers meets a mysterious youth when he has been swimming in the river – yes, it’s Edward, Prince of Wales (although Piers doesn’t know this), and they are smitten with each other. Even when he finds out who Edward is, he refuses to give him up although he does worry about the king finding out. Naturally, Sir Aubrey is heartbroken.

All this is very different from what we know about Piers’ early life. And Penford continues to deviate from the evidence. There’s no scene with Edward asking his father for Ponthieu, although Piers is banished – for 2 years! On his re-call with Edward as king, he is made Earl of Cornwall and all the nobles – real and fictitious – hate him. Edward is a nervous wreck and can only worry about keeping Piers safe without resorting to violence – something that causes them to argue a lot. There’s no tournament with the nobles at this point. Edward decides to marry Piers to his niece – who happens to be 11 and Piers can hardly agree to it. We never meet Margaret in the novel, Piers never consummates his marriage with her, so they never have their daughter Joan and in fact, her brother Gloucester wants a divorce as the novel moves on.

Piers loathes the idea of Edward getting married – as does Edward himself, feeling there’s no need as he has 2 healthy half-brothers! However, Piers has to suppress his jealousy and ‘allow’ Edward to marry Isabella to try to appease the nobles. Isabella’s portrayal is nightmarish! She is 16, unchaste, and ravishes Edward on their wedding night! Edward has to close his eyes and think of England!

The novel badly loses its way here – with Isabella openly conducting an affair with Thomas of Lancaster! Their first night together is rather funny, and I’ll leave it at that! Isabella joins the nobles to try and depose her husband and set herself up as regent – years before she actually did. Edward suffers countless humiliations at the hands of the rebel lords, argues with Piers who wants to wage war, (and eventually does defeat them in a tournament) and takes to his bed as a gibbering wreck whenever he can’t face ‘the real world’.

If this were a fictitious novel about a fictional period of history, it would be a fair read. It strays so far from what we know, it almost feels like that. The author was from Nottingham, which explains why most of the novel is set there. Maybe it should have been about a 7th century warlord in, erm, Nottingham? The relationship between Piers and Edward is touching in parts – they really do care for each other. Piers is handsome and heroic, but lacks his warrior status to carry out all his threats to wage war on the nobles, and there’s no sign of his wit. By contrast, Edward is not just weak, but very, very weak! To the extent where I wondered what Piers would ever have seen in him. He takes to his bed, is struck literally dumb and has to be dragged out of bed by his loyal friends to act to save Piers. At the conclusion of the novel, Piers cannot take anymore, feeling he and Edward have too much blood on their hands, and with the ancient blood feud rearing it’s head again, takes the decision to sacrifice himself and goes willingly to his death.

An enjoyable read, with a pleasing portrayal of Piers and a very different slant on his story. Read it with a pinch of salt:)