Although no portraits of Eleanor exist, artists like to believe she was extremely beautiful, and tend to paint her this way.
When Anthony Harvey made a film rendition of The Lion in Winter, he cast beautiful Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor.
Undoubtedly one of the most powerful and influential women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine has been both vilified and glorified in numerous literary works. The multiple legends that surround her as mother to her people, mother to her children, and patron of artists and writers of the medieval world, now live through her literary representations. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter and Pamela Kaufman’s The Book of Eleanor both do this epic heroine justice in her various roles as mother, focusing on her strength and pride, but also depicting her staggering intellect and grace. In reading these two works, I realized many differences in the representations of Eleanor. It was also interesting to note Anthony Harvey’s portrayal of Eleanor as mother in his film rendition of The Lion in Winter. The focus of my research became Eleanor’s interaction with her children, as illustrated by these authors and film director. Her literary character has obviously been dreamed up, based on a distant historical reality. These modern authors never had the chance to meet the subject of their stories, but they created their versions of Eleanor to be three-dimensional and living like their readers. This said, I believe that Eleanor was indeed a woman of iron character, but that we may never know what she was truly like as a mother to her children just through these literary interpretations.
Eleanor was not only a Queen. She was mother to ten children: five boys and five girls. In the play The Lion in Winter, written in 1964, we meet only her three youngest sons, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. The play is set in 1183, during Christmas in Chinon, France. Goldman introduces the reader to a rather dysfunctional medieval family, who is more concerned with power than the holidays. Eleanor, temporarily released from imprisonment by her husband, finds he is too preoccupied with his lover Alais to give Eleanor the time of day. When he does grant her an iota of his attention, it is to quarrel about which son should receive the title of king after he has died. Goldman has also created a complex but volatile relationship between Eleanor and her sons. They are not loving and respectful of each other. Rather they are brash in their dialogue and hurtful to each other. This is very obviously displayed in the movie The Lion in Winter, released in 1968. Katharine Hepburn is very dramatic in her portrayal of Eleanor’s seething anger towards Henry and her plan to use her children against him. When she speaks as Eleanor to her children, Hepburn enunciates and makes her voice strong. Hepburn portrays Eleanor as domineering and unfazed by what is thought or said of her in the court. However, Hepburn’s portrayal of the scene between Richard and Eleanor where she tells him how much she misses their comradeship is much more believable in the movie than in the text of the play. Hepburn throws herself dramatically into Richard’s arms and begs him to remember how they used to love each other, saying that she will “scratch a will on this. It won’t burn. To Richard everything” (Goldman, p. 33). When reading the play, the reader is influenced to believe that Eleanor is just plotting again. In the movie, Hepburn is so dramatic and vehement in her professions and physical gestures, that we actually begin to believe that she is not void of love after all. She is a very convincing actress, and one sees a side of Eleanor in the movie scene that is not so clearly expressed in the same scene of Goldman’s play.
The youngest son, John, responds to his mother’s arrival by declaring, “If I’m supposed to make a fuss and kiss her hairy cheek, I won’t” (Goldman, p. 10). In fact, throughout the play, John is most arrogant and rude to his mother. This strained relationship is the result of Eleanor’s long imprisonment away from her children and John’s growing up without Eleanor’s motherly influence. It becomes apparent that John envies his older brother, Richard, because he has had the chance to know Eleanor as mother while growing up. He whines with self-pity, blaming his mother for not raising him: “...put your arms around me just the way you never did. You can do it. Think I’m Richard” (Goldman, p. 27). He is an angry, impulsive and spoiled boy, and Goldman uses his senseless eruptions at Eleanor to highlight John’s inability to become king, as much as he uses them to portray Eleanor as lacking in the role of tender mother. She teases John throughout the play and makes him feel worthless. This is inconsistent with the overabundance of love shown by his father towards John. He retorts to his mother when she chides at him, “You can’t hurt me, you bag of bile, no matter what you say” (Goldman p. 45). Goldman does not portray Eleanor as hurt by this. Rather she seems indifferent to his comments. While watching the Harvey rendition in the movie, one almost gets a sense that John is depicted as slightly retarded. When watching the movie, it becomes almost excusable for Eleanor to be so indifferent to his rude remarks. It almost seems as if Harvey wants the viewer to think that John can’t help himself, because he is not completely sane.
Geoffrey is also quick to snap at his mother. This is a hint that something more is amiss in the family than just a retarded son. While conversing about his potential role as Richard’s chancellor, Eleanor and Geoffrey get into a rather heated discussion. Eleanor asks Geoffrey for his help and he tells her to “Rot” (Goldman, p. 30). Again, Eleanor does not appear hurt by his comments. Her response is rational, “Oh, Geoffrey. Well, that’s how deals are made” (Goldman, p. 30). Apparently, that is how deals are made in Eleanor’s family as portrayed by Goldman. Harvey also captures this disdain of Eleanor by her boys. The way they talk to her seems that they are disgusted with her. One pivotal reason for Geoffrey and John’s contempt for Eleanor is her preoccupation with her son Richard and her quest for power through his victory. She, in turn, ignores the existence of her other sons. Clearly, Goldman has portrayed Richard as Eleanor’s favorite child. Eleanor’s actions do not always validate her words when it comes to Geoffrey and John. She says she cares, but she does not express concern over their futures. Sometimes, Eleanor expresses simple ignorance about her sons. After an outpouring of emotions to his mother, Geoffrey is met with sheer apathy:
Geoffrey: I remember my third birthday. Not just pictures of the garden or gifts, but who did what to whom and how I felt. My memory reaches back that far and never once can I remember anything from you or Father warmer than indifference. Why is that?
Eleanor: I don’t know… There are times when I think I loved none of our children (Goldman, p. 52).
Apathy is not the response a child should get when questioning his mother’s love. Even Eleanor’s adored son, Richard, is hostile towards his mother and pelts her with accusations. He attempts to demean Eleanor when he says, “You’re so deceitful you can’t ask for water when you’re thirsty. We could tangle spiders in the webs you weave” (Goldman, p. 23). Again Eleanor is quite unmoved by these accusations, even when they come from the mouth of her favorite son. She responds to Richard by saying “Love me, little lamb, or leave me” (Goldman, p 23). Here Eleanor is saying she doesn’t need Richard’s love. He must accept her for the person she is.
Goldman portrays Eleanor as a bitter woman, who has been so scorned by Henry and his infidelity that she no longer cares much for her children. She is more interested in revenge against her estranged husband. Goldman focuses on Eleanor as a determined and independent woman by the standards of 1183. She uses her children as pawns to become more powerful. The boys are quite aware of this: “You are Medea to the teeth but this is one son you won’t use for vengeance on your husband” says Richard defiantly to his mother (Goldman, p. 31). She is not trusted by her own sons, because they see her as conniving. Indeed, she admits that she is manipulative: “I scheme a lot; I know. I plot and plan. That’s how a queen in prison spends her time” (Goldman, p. 23).
In a strange and paradoxical way, Goldman tries to balance Eleanor’s lust for power and revenge with motherly love. She seems to have an absurd kind of love for Alais, Henry’s lover. Because she raised the girl as a prospective wife for the young Richard, she has maternal feelings for her. When she arrives in Chinon, Eleanor attempts to hide her pain and show love for Alais. In response to Alais’s cold greeting, she says to her, “No, no; greet me like you used to. (Hugging her) Fragile I am not: affection is a pressure I can bear” (Goldman, p. 12). Even throughout the play, considering Alais has betrayed her, Eleanor shows a degree of caring and respect towards the girl that far surpasses what is conventional in such a situation. This is reminiscent of “Eliduc” written by Marie de France in the twelfth century, possibly for the court of Eleanor in Poitiers. In this tale, a knight, named Eliduc, swears his undying love to his wife, Guildeluec. Guildeluec loves and cherishes her lord Eliduc, just as Goldman’s Eleanor loves and cherishes her husband, Henry. Like Henry, Eliduc meets a young princess and falls in love with her. This princess, named Guilliadun, may be paralleled to Goldman’s character of Alais, because they are both the lovers in the love triangle. It is interesting that both Guildeluc and Eleanor, the betrayed wives, are compassionate to the lovers of their husbands. However, Goldman portrays Eleanor as deeply moved by her husband’s betrayal, whereas Guildeluc simply decides to become a nun, because her husband does not want her anymore. Throughout the play, it is Alais who seems openly threatened by Eleanor. Eleanor assures her that “ After all the years of love, the hair I’ve brushed and braided and the tears I’ve kissed away, do you think I could bring myself to hurt you” (Goldman, p. 18). It remains hard for Eleanor to accept that Henry could have forsaken her, but she remains more motherly than destructive towards Alais.
In contrast, in Pamela Kaufman’s more recent The Book of Eleanor, published in 2002, Eleanor is glorified and depicted as a woman wronged who lives only for her children and her lover. The book is a fictional account of Eleanor’s life based on historical facts. Kaufman has paid great attention to the historical chronology of Eleanor’s life but has changed the roles of some of Eleanor’s real-life acquaintances. Eleanor’s marriages to the two kings, Louis of France and Henry of England, are represented as Eleanor’s damnation in this literary interpretation of her life. In Kaufman’s novel, her two marriages are transcended by her true and chivalrous love for an Aquitainian knight and captain of Eleanor’s Aquitaine army, Richard Rancon. It is obvious that Kaufman has twisted and maneuvered history into a juicy romance novel. Kaufman portrays Eleanor as a feminist willing to risk anything for love, making her appealing to female readers today. Kaufman compares the forbidden love of Eleanor and Rancon to that of Tristan and Iseult. In addition, some of Eleanor and Henry’s children are really Eleanor’s and Rancon’s in this interpretation of her life. In fact, Eleanor’s favorite son Richard is named after her lover, which was never the case in her real life.
From the very beginning of her doomed marriage to Louis of France, all that Eleanor can think about is having a baby. This is the only way in which she can imagine an escape from the reality of marriage with the fanatically religious King Louis:
Weak tears coursed down my cheeks. I must have my own baby! God’s heart hadn’t I sacrificed love in life? Must I also be deprived of the fruits of love? I was a woman with a woman’s yearnings, a baby of my very own, someone to love and who would love me without guilt or judgment (Kaufman, p. 106).
In this novel, Louis is portrayed as a maniacal religious zealot who has proclaimed a vow of celibacy. Eleanor suffers without a child for seven years. She finally cajoles and seduces her husband to bed and nine months later gives birth to a daughter, Marie. She is enchanted with Marie and takes solace in her, and refers to her as her “heavenly angel” (Kaufman, p. 112). When Louis confides in her his superstitious beliefs that a daughter is evil for the family, Eleanor forsakes him: “I promise you that I personally will mark you with a hole to your heart, if you have one. You are a superstitious fool… from this point forward, you are my enemy”(Kaufman, p. 113). In an abrupt change of heart from his strict vow of celibacy, Louis becomes desperate and willing to do anything to have another child, a son, with Eleanor. He receives blessings from bishops, and they try one more time for an heir to the throne. Eleanor gives birth to another daughter, whom she names Alix. She takes great care to teach the girls culture and literary skills, but is taken away from them when she is asked to go on a religious crusade led by Louis. It is her dream, that like her, her first-born daughter Marie will be named as an heir to the throne by Louis: “You must name her as your heir…at once” she says to Louis before they leave for the Crusade (Kaufman, p. 122).
After a separation of nine years, while on the Crusade, Eleanor is reunited with her childhood love Rancon, and she realizes her marriage to Louis is hopeless. When she is with Rancon, she feels like they Tristan and Isuelt, the true form of pure love. She annuls her marriage in hopes of having a family with Rancon but makes sure that she has rights to her two daughters, Marie and Alix. Kaufman does not observe historical precision in this episode of her romance novel. According to Kaufman, Eleanor’s plans are shattered when she is kidnapped, raped, and forced into marriage by Henry. Louis, when hearing of Eleanor’s hasty remarriage, disinherits his two daughters. Eleanor is furious because her daughters are punished wrongfully: “I would pluck Henry’s eyes from their sockets…Did he have no pity for the innocent? No sympathy for children who were disinherited?” (Kaufman, p. 238). Even when she gives birth to Henry’s first-born son, she longs for her daughters, “No mother had ever loved her children as I did, and even as I kissed William’s soft fuzz, I was remembering Marie and Alix” (Kaufman, pp 257). Kaufman mentions in her novel on several occasions that Eleanor kept in touch with her daughters throughout her life. When Marie and Eleanor are united after years of separation in the Aquitaine court, Marie greets her mother with words of love, “Oh Mama, how I do love you! I feel we’ve never been apart! Your letters have taught me so much about music! About love” (Kaufman p 439). Kaufman portrays Eleanor as being warm and motherly even when she cannot physically be with her daughters. This is a direct contrast to Goldman’s depiction of Eleanor’s emotional detachment from her children after years of separation. Kaufman’s Eleanor in fact, could easily be compared to Dhouda. Dhouda was a devout medieval woman who was torn away form her two sons and wanted to remain with them spiritually, so she wrote a handbook for her older son, William. In this handbook, Dhouda taught her son all she knew, so that he would grow up to be a righteous and devout man. Kaufman’s Eleanor could further be compared to Christine de Pizan, although Christine was never separated from her son, but also wrote a manual for her son, with advice about how he could live his life happily and morally. Kaufman depicts Eleanor as a mother who cares for the well-being of her children, though they are kept from her care. Like Dhouda, Kaufman’s Eleanor will not let distance and unfavorable circumstances keep her from her motherly duties.
Most interesting about Kaufman’s portrayal of Eleanor as a devout mother to her children is that it implicitly rejects Goldman’s depiction of Eleanor as a ruthless mother seeking power through her children. Kaufman’s Eleanor is a mother who neglects her duties to Aquitaine in order to make certain that her son Henry is an heir to the throne. She remains in England, pushing so vehemently for the young prince to go through the process of coronation, that she does not visit Aquitaine for years, and lets it self-destruct: “My concerns about Aquitaine dissolved in the greater issue of protecting my son’s interests” (Kaufman, p. 364). Later on, when her lover, and the overseer of Aquitaine pleads for her to leave England and Henry to come back home to Aquitaine, in order to save the declining country, she refuses. Leaving for Aquitaine would put her children in danger. “I can’t destroy them for you” (Kaufman p. 395), Eleanor says. “Then you destroy everyone” Rancon answers (Kaufman pp 395). She is coerced into a situation in which she has no choice but to lose something or someone dear to her. Losing control of Aquitaine for her children is more important to her than Aquitaine and Rancon’s love, because Kaufman has made her a compassionate mother. Kaufman’s Eleanor puts her own happiness and well-being after those of her children. Kaufman’s Eleanor will stop at nothing until she is sure that all her boys have a suitable inheritance. In Goldman’s interpretation, Eleanor is described as wanting everything for Richard, because then it will be jointly hers. The only reason she cares so strongly for Richard’s power is to gain revenge against her husband by going against him, and to have the power she cares for more than life, at her fingertips.
However modern writers portray her now, Eleanor was definitely a woman of superb wit, extreme intelligence, and great cunning in. James Goldman chose to portray Eleanor as a mother to her country, instead of as a mother to her children. In The Lion in Winter, when Henry offers her freedom in exchange for her rights to the Aquitaine, Eleanor admits that the Aquitaine is her most treasured possession in life: “These ten years have been unimaginable. And you can offer me the only thing I want if I give up the only thing I treasure and still feel for me” (Goldman, p. 43). This scene is portrayed somewhat differently by Harvey. It seems that Harvey, as director, wanted Hepburn to show a deep struggle in this decision between freedom and being true to her son. Hepburn is sobbing, and for the first time, she portrays Eleanor as weak. Harvey doesn’t focus so much on Eleanor being conniving, but rather, that Henry has hit her weak spot when he offers her, her freedom. Eleanor is shown by Harvey as woman whose motherly strength and power hunger are merely a façade. In The Book of Eleanor: a Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Pamela Kaufman paints a picture of Eleanor as a protective mother above all things, willing to sacrifice and suffer for her children. Could it be possible that Eleanor was truly a woman initially driven by her lust for power and vengeance upon Henry? Goldman’s portrayal of Eleanor as a cold woman who has sacrificed motherly warmth for politics and honor seems a bit over dramatized. On the other hand, Kaufman’s interpretation of Eleanor as the main heroine from a Harlequin romance novel, who is a weepy mother seems to under dramatize her character. Most likely, Eleanor was a woman who was more in control of her emotions, a happy medium between these two extreme personalities. Though no one will ever know for sure which picture of Eleanor is more accurate, one thing remains sure: she will forever remain mother of ten children, mother of Aquitaine (and medieval motherly figure to England), and a Queen of two kings.