Anne O’Brien’s new novel, The Shadow Queen, tells the story of Joan of Kent, wife of the Black Prince and mother of the future King Richard II of England. Although Joan wasn’t actually a queen, she was never far from the throne – as cousin to Edward III, she had Plantagenet blood, and through her husband, Edward’s eldest son Edward of Woodstock (the name ‘the Black Prince’ was given to him later), she was both Princess of Wales and Princess of Aquitaine. When Richard acceded to the throne at the age of only ten, in her position as the king’s mother she was able to have some influence on the early years of his reign. In some ways, then, she could be considered to be a sort of ‘shadow queen’, as the title suggests.
Despite all of this, however, Joan is probably best known for her beauty – she would later become known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent – and for the scandals caused by her three marriages. The novel opens in 1340, with twelve-year-old Joan learning that a marriage has been arranged for her with Will Montagu, heir to the Earl of Salisbury. Joan doesn’t dislike Will and under different circumstances this would have been a good match. Unfortunately, though, Joan is not free to marry anyone – she has already undergone a secret marriage with Thomas Holland, a minor knight who departed shortly after the wedding to fight for the king. Forced to admit the truth, Joan is horrified when her mother insists that her marriage to Will must go ahead anyway. She faces a long and difficult battle if she is ever to prove the validity of her first marriage and to win the right to live with the man she considers her true husband.
Around half of the novel is devoted to Joan’s relationships with Thomas and Will and the challenges involved in disentangling Joan’s first two marriages and deciding who should be her rightful husband. This seemed to go on for a very long time, but I appreciated that it was necessary to give the reader an understanding of the gossip and rumour that surrounded Joan in the early part of her life and how important it was that, when she eventually married the King’s heir, Edward of Woodstock (Ned, as he is called in the novel), her reputation should be clear of any taint.
The other half of the novel follows the years of Joan’s marriage to Ned, their time as Prince and Princess of Aquitaine and, when back in England, Joan’s efforts to ensure that their son Richard will be named successor to the throne. I don’t think it’s a spoiler – as it’s a well-known historical fact – to say that Ned’s life is cut short by illness and as he is outlived by his father, he never has the opportunity to become king himself. I couldn’t help thinking how different things might have been if he had lived and Edward III had been succeeded by a grown man rather than a ten-year-old boy; what we know of the Black Prince suggests that although he was a good soldier he wouldn’t necessarily have made a good king, but still the whole course of history could have been changed. I liked the way Anne O’Brien portrayed him and I enjoyed reading about his relationship with Joan. There was a lot of love between them, but it wasn’t love at first sight – more a love that developed slowly between two people who had known each other from childhood – and, at least on Joan’s part, there was also a certain amount of ambition involved.
Joan herself is portrayed as a strong, proud and courageous person who does her best to take control of her own life, though always within the confines of what it is possible for a medieval woman to do. I’m not sure that I particularly liked her, as she does sometimes come across as a little bit self-absorbed and lacking in judgement, but I did find her a convincing and well-drawn character. I was intrigued by her prickly, hostile interactions with Edward III’s much maligned mistress, Alice Perrers – I know Alice was the subject of one of Anne O’Brien’s earlier novels, The King’s Concubine, which I haven’t read yet, and now I’m curious to see how she approaches Alice’s character in that book.
The Shadow Queen is an interesting, enjoyable novel, if a bit too long and drawn-out in places. I couldn’t help comparing it to the only other novel I’ve read on Joan of Kent – A Triple Knot by Emma Campion – and I think this is definitely the better of the two books.