Edition reviewed: Sphere, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84744-097-6, 506 pages
US edition published by Sourcebooks, 2010, ISBN 978-1402244490, 544 pages
Set in 1173-1199, The Time of Singing (US title: For the King's Favor) covers the later years of the reign of Henry II, all of the reign of Richard I (Lionheart) and the beginning of King John's. It centres on Roger Bigod, heir to the earldom of Norfolk, and his wife Ida de Tosney. William Marshal (hero of the author's earlier books The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion), is an important secondary character. All the main characters are historical figures.
Roger Bigod, eldest son of the earl of Norfolk, has been at odds with his boorish father, his stepmother and his two younger half-brothers for years, and when his father rebels against Henry II Roger defies his father and joins the king. Victory in battle sees Roger's father forfeit the earldom, and although Roger has won Henry's cautious regard, Henry is afraid of the Bigod earls' power and uses the inheritance dispute between Roger and his half-brothers as a convenient excuse to withhold the earldom from either. Now Roger has a protracted struggle ahead of him to regain his inheritance. When he encounters Ida de Tosney, Henry's young ward and reluctant mistress, Roger is immediately attracted to her and is happy to accept her as his wife. But Ida has to pay the price of giving up her young son for Henry to rear at court, and Roger has his own insecurities to deal with. As Roger's work in the King's service takes him ever more from Ida's side, the emotional scars they both bear threaten to destroy their marriage.
As with the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I've read (e.g. The Winter Mantle, reviewed here), The Time of Singing is especially strong on human relationships. I felt it had a more domestic focus than the Marshal novels. Roger is embroiled in a protracted legal battle for his forfeited earldom and inheritance, there are some murky political shenanigans to negotiate while Richard I is away on crusade, and there are a couple of short battlefield action scenes, but the heart of the novel is in Roger and Ida's relationship with each other and the people around them. Their marriage forms the centrepiece, but it is only the central one among the many other relationships that form the warp and weft of their lives. Ida's relationship with her illegitimate son by Henry, who is taken from her to be raised at court when she marries Roger, is perhaps the most poignant. Roger's family ties, including the difficult relationships with his thoroughly unpleasant father, his stepmother and his two contrasting half-brothers, and his growing friendship with William Marshal, shape his life choices and influence his relationship with Ida and their children. The novel illustrates how medieval society was held together by a complex web of kinship, lordship and friendship ties.
The main characters are well rounded and believable. Roger makes an attractive contrast to the charming and self-assured William Marshal. He is practical, patient, level-headed and reliable, but painfully shy around women and his self-containment can be all too easily mistaken for emotional coldness. Ida is sweet, caring, almost as innocent at the end of the novel as she is at the beginning, and traumatised by having to leave her eldest child behind at court. Left alone at Framlingham with her other children for increasingly long periods while Roger is engaged on legal and administrative duties, Ida's loneliness and growing resentment are easy to understand. Roger is jealous of her previous affair with the king, and resentful of her pining for her missing son. The growing distance between them, and their struggles to find a compromise that will sustain their marriage (aided by some informal marriage guidance from William Marshal!) is convincingly drawn.
The novel shows an unglamorous side to Henry II, as something of a dirty old man not above exploiting a young girl placed in his care. The secondary character I found most intriguing was Ida's illegitimate son by Henry, William (later known as Longespee, "Long Sword"). Brought up in the lap of luxury as the king's son but insecure about his illegitimate status and anxious about his unknown mother's identity, William develops an obsession with status and show that makes him behave like an arrogant snob as he reaches adolescence. It would be easy to dismiss him as a jerk, but Roger's cool compassion is able to recognise the genuine worth underneath and build a wary acceptance between them.
Readers who enjoy the minutiae of life (at least among the aristocracy) in years gone by will love the details of domestic life, including Roger's (fictional) love of extravagant hats and the detail of food, clothing and life in a great house (complete with aggressive geese in the bailey). As the novel covers over twenty years, the narrative often skips forward several years at one jump, and I had to remember to pay attention to the dates given in the chapter headings. A helpful Author's Note summarises the history underlying the novel and the gaps filled in by fiction.
Warm-hearted exploration of romantic, family and social relationships in twelfth-century England.