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As delicately textured as a 12th-century tapestry, royal biographer Weir's (The Life of Elizabeth I, etc.) newest book is exhilarating in its color, ambition and human warmth.
The author exhibits a breathtaking grasp of the physical and cultural context of Queen Eleanor's life, presenting a fuller, more holistic appreciation of a dazzling world whose charms can easily be anesthetized by dull narrative. And from the start, her auburn-haired subject, a live wire in a restrictive society, muse of poets and crusaders, seduces the reader.
Weir conveys a deep empathy for the relaxed south of France where Eleanor was raised, a natural home for the gospel of courtly love. She paints a Brueghelesque picture of England, where wolves roamed the forests and people made skates in winter out of animal bones.
In approaching as complex a subject as feudalism, Weir wears her learning lightly and has a pleasant habit of anticipating all the questions of a curious reader. Her account parades a sequence of extraordinary characters: the saintly abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who as an adolescent leapt into a freezing pond until his erection subsided; Eleanor's first husband, Louis VII of France, haunted by the screams of burning victims after his assault on a village in Champagne; her lover, Raymond of Poitiers, who could bend an iron bar with his bare hands; and her second husband, Henry II of England, her princely mirror in energy, intelligence and sexuality. Above all, there is the heroine, viewed clear-sightedly in all her intoxicating and imperious irresistibility.