A Triple Knot (2014), by Emma Campion, is a historical novel based on the tumultuous and true life of a fourteenth-century Englishwoman who, as cousin to the king, was a member of the royal court. Campion’s novel follows Joan, The Fair Maid of Kent, over a sweep of 23 years, from 1338 to 1361. It gives nothing away to say that Joan marries a knight in secret at the age of twelve, then is married off, as the property of the king, to another royal. After ten years, Joan and her loyal knight win an annulment from the pope, and they are reunited. The knight dies after the couple has had five children, and the beautiful Joan is then snatched up to become the wife and future queen of The Black Prince. Thus, the triple knot of the title: Joan has not only two husbands at once, but in the background, there is always the lure of the Black Prince.
Emma Campion is the pseudonym of Candace Robb, the American Ph.D and author of thirteen mysteries set in fourteenth century England. When Robb published The King’s Mistress, her publisher advised a pseudonym, so that readers used to her mysteries would accept the new, broader ambition of the book. Robb has a loyal following for her mysteries, books in which her main character is able to interact with all walks of life, something which is less possible in a book whose main character is a member of the royal court.
In “A Writer’s Retreat” (here) Candace Robb and her alter ego, Emma Campion, maintain a fascinating blog on the writer’s life. I found this blog as interesting as the novel. Robb/Campion writes lucidly and at length about the process of creating historical fiction.
A Triple Knot has a specific audience: medieval history buffs who like historical fiction, women who want to imagine the constrained lives of women in earlier times, people looking for a summer read, and enthusiasts such as the re-enactors who make up the Society for Creative Anachronism.
The novel ends just as Joan’s marriage to the Black Prince begins. She bears him two children. Although Edward dies before his father and Joan never becomes Queen, she does enjoy the privileges of being the mother of the next king, Richard II.
Murder, betrayal, secrets, and spies abound. Around the time Joan was born, Edward II was deposed by, among others, his wife, and died in prison. Joan’s father took the wrong side in the aftermath, and he was executed by the Queen and her lover. Said Queen’s lover was later murdered by the Crown Prince (the Black Prince) when the prince was only sixteen. Not only did Joan grow up in the shadow of her father’s violent death, her secret husband’s father was also the victim of a royal feud. With such a backdrop, it is not hard to imagine that Joan and her knight might be soul mates — reckless soul mates. The entirety of A Triple Knot has the fever of Hamlet, with all its scheming and many deaths. Indeed, Campion’s epigraph hearkens to Hamlet as it is from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.”
This imagined life of the Fair Maid of Kent tells her story from several perspectives: Joan herself; Joan’s mother, Queen Philippa; Katerina, the wife of a very rich Antwerp merchant; Efa, the Welsh healer; and Lucienne, Joan’s rival, Lucienne being the knight’s lover. As such, the book is a survey of the situations and options faced by a woman in the royal court. Campion takes her women seriously, but the recklessness which typifies Joan underlies the entire book; the thesis appears to be that when murder and intrigue are the court’s bread and butter, you’d better be pretty quick on your feet.
One of the pleasures of the book is that it is a saga: it covers a span of almost forty years, and it details the progress of several families. Campion keeps the plot grounded in the details of time and place, and she brings it all to life with costume, battle and plague. She emphasizes a character’s narrow point of view: in this society, there’s always a Judas lurking in the crowd, and the gossip is not idle. Dismemberment, kidnapping, imprisonment, and death are part of everyday court life in 1350. As such, it is an entertaining read.
But having to cover so much historical and social ground, I found the novel’s characters’ psychological authenticity to be thin or even unbelievable, especially as children and adolescents. And what would prompt a 24-year-old man to marry a twelve-year-old girl is insufficiently explored.
The language is somewhat stilted. There’s many a thrice, and twelve-year-old Joan says things like, “I dreamed of Ned in battle with the bloodlust upon him.” Nevertheless, the novel is a different world, and often what we require of entertainment is that it take us to a different place. This it does.
My husband is both a professional historian and an amateur buff of medieval English history. We are taking a trip to Sussex in September, in search of castles and kings, and we will do a jaunt this month to see what the Society for Creative Anachronism has on view in Groton, Massachusetts. So I enjoyed the lively preview offered by A Triple Knot.