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The Confession of Piers Gaveston Paperback – 23 Jul 2007
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Top customer reviews
Purdy's Gaveston writes an account of his life, at a time when everything has turned to complete disaster. It is an interesting exercise - it is a consciously self-serving point of view, and I read the character's perspective on past events as being coloured by more recent ones. The way it is written certainly forced me to think: do I trust this character's account, or is there more to it?
What I liked:
Purdy is very good at vivid descriptions and there were passages I reread several times out of sheer enjoyment of her prose. Scenes that have stuck with me include the depiction of the teenage Prince and companion as they slowly fall for each other, and the love scene after Edward's disastrous coronation. Equally refreshing is the depiction of Gaveston showing genuine affection and kindness to his young wife, Margaret de Clare, and his two daughters. There are some flashes of the snarky wit for which the real Gaveston was famous (though I'd have liked to have seen more of it). There is also an extraordinarily powerful passage where Gaveston describes his desperation to be loved for the man he is, not for his looks or other superficial reasons, and how he feels trapped into playing a role of his own making.
Although I have some reservations about it, I found the portrayal of Gaveston as a victim of childhood abuse (and how that influences his behaviour as a man) in the main quite poignant, and his perspective and narration frequently engaging. It is a seductive read, and one which I found difficult to put down. The inevitable denouement is incredibly moving. Purdy certainly doesn't hold back in detailing the more sordid or unpalatable aspects of human behaviour - while I wouldn't describe the novel as overly graphic, there are certainly incidents that some readers might find confronting.
What bothered me:
While I don't pretend to exhaustive knowledge on this period, and I accept that not as much is known about Gaveston as later historical figures, the notion of Rent Boy!Gaveston did not sit all that well; I certainly felt his over-the-top promiscuity was emphasised to a repetitive extreme (at one stage I found myself thinking, "He sleeps around. I GET IT!") and the suggestion that his promiscuity and/or bisexuality was `caused' by his childhood abuse seemed a bit troubling.
If I recall correctly, Gaveston's family was of the Gascon nobility, so the likelihood of him having to endure a poverty-stricken, itinerant childhood (including at one point being dumped with an unscrupulous innkeeper uncle who is the first to sell him into prostitution) seems remote at best. While this premise kind of worked in the context of the story, some effort was required in suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen much more about his prowess as a jouster and soldier, something for which the real Gaveston is remembered - we are told about this, but never really shown it.
There is also an element of cliché in the portrayals particularly of the adult Edward II as well as Gaveston - they come across as rather too camp at times (Gaveston "simpers" at Isabella, or flirts outrageously with his male enemies, for example), and the characterisations are often unsubtle. Edward was an ineffectual king, yes, but I would have liked to see more depth to him than the shallow, possessive, spoilt brat ruled by his you-know-what depicted here. He does not emerge as a very sympathetic character, which is fine, provided he is given some complexity, and that unfortunately is not really the case here. Their relationship most of the time appears, to use a modern buzz-word, incredibly dysfunctional, with the long-suffering Piers enduring rather than welcoming Edward's advances, and at time borders on abusive. Perhaps that is a deliberate choice, to show how Gaveston's perspective has become jaundiced now that he is facing ruin and probable death. On the other hand, and perhaps I'm just a closet romantic, I would have preferred an account where Edward and Gaveston are portrayed as two men of their time who just happen to love each other. (Also - Edward inviting Piers to call him "Nedikins"? Seriously?)
Also, the depiction of Gaveston as a Goddess-worshipping pagan seemedunnecessary (as well as having no foundation in fact) and added little if anything to the plot. I also didn't find the fictional character of his loyal old nurse Agnes all that engaging and Dragon was just, well, _there_. They really didn't add a great deal to the narrative.
I would have appreciated an Author's Note at the end, setting out why she chose to write Gaveston and Edward this way, any liberties taken, and what sources she used for her research. For example, the burning of his mother Claramonde is a complete myth, and while it was important to the storyline, this sort of thing should be drawn to the reader's attention. Further, I'm always interested in the rationale behind an author's writing choices and suggestions for further reading. Also, maps would have been really useful, to get a mental picture of where the protagonists were at particular times.
Notwithstanding its flaws - and no novel is perfect - this is a great effort from a first time author. For a novel dealing with some extraordinary events and people, it is remarkably short (only 181 pages), and I felt that some more detail, and more work on characterisation would have made it even better. It won't appeal to everyone, but it's worth giving it a try. It got me tracking down other novels and non-fiction about Edward II, so that can only be a good thing! (On a superficial note - I'm glad to see it finally has a decent cover, too.)
Early in the novel, when he is only nine years old, Piers' body is sold to a lodger by his "unscrupulous innkeeper" uncle - a baffling character to anyone who knows anything at all about late thirteenth-century history - and he thereafter chooses to become a "boy-harlot." This may be trigger-ish for some readers. Child sex abuse and child prostitution are not topics that I personally want to read about, and frankly I didn't expect to find them in a novel about Piers Gaveston. "My rapist had opened my eyes to my allure, and my value. The Goddess gifted me with great beauty, the kind that inspires awe and takes the beholder's breath away...". The novel is pretty well just about Piers' sex life, and his life as a prostitute, and how he has sex with lots of men and women, then has more sex, and just when you think he might actually do something interesting or different, meets someone else and has lots more sex. As a few readers will know, this is par for the course in a Purdy novel; there are people who'll never look at Tudor history the same way again after reading her scene involving Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and a jar of honey. Edward II and Piers also have lots of sex, including in a carriage on the way from Dover to London after Edward arrives back in the country with his new wife, Isabella. There is a scene where Piers leaves his new wife Margaret's bed on their wedding night to sleep with Edward, which scene also appears in Chris Hunt's novel about Piers. Piers is so seductive in Confession that even men who normally only fancy women find themselves lusting after him, which is also - like so much else in the novel - reminiscent of Chris Hunt's Gaveston (pretty well all the men in that one fancy Piers too). Piers insists on telling the reader frequently and at length how cold and empty all the paid-for sex makes him, a "practised tart" as we are told over and over, feel. Diddums. No doubt this makes some readers feel sympathy and empathy with him, but it just made me feel impatient and bored. "Practised tart," indeed, a man who in reality was lord lieutenant of Ireland, regent of England, jousting champion and so on. Although the fact that Piers did have a life outside the bedchamber is occasionally mentioned, we see nothing at all of his abilities and experiences as a soldier, jouster, military and political leader, earl, estate manager. It's all just about his sex life and how about beautiful and seductive he is and how horrible it is that no-one, including Edward, loves him for himself and not his physical attributes (Edward "was too blinded by my beauty to actually see me" is a typical refrain).
The characterisation of Edward II in Confession, a "feckless, addle-pated king" and a "buttercup blonde [sic]" (pp. 5, 14), appears to have been taken straight from the Big Book Of Horrible Dated Gay Caricatures. He sobs constantly, he pouts, he sighs, he yelps, he wails, he stamps his foot and throws silly tantrums, he swoons, he shrieks, he behaves like a teenage girl with a crush. I find it offensive. Edward in general is deeply selfish, shallow and unpleasant throughout, and a wholly unlikeable character who doesn't change or develop at all. Piers claims to genuinely love him, though it's hard to see why. Piers himself also comes across as a stereotype, the bisexual man willing to have sex with anything that has a pulse, who preens, flirts and simpers. I may be in a minority here, as there are plenty of positive reviews of the novel online, but I don't see any depth to Purdy's creation of Piers Gaveston, don't find his relationship with Edward plausible or interesting, don't feel any sympathy or liking for any of the characters, don't see Piers' wit, don't see anything at all that makes me think this is in any way a realistic retelling of Piers' and Edward's story.
An Amazon review of the novel states: "Some of the scenes in the novel seem almost unbelievably melodramatic - such as Edward abandoning his bride on their wedding day for his male lover's company and actually giving him the jewelry that had been a wedding gift from the queen's father - but these are all documented historical events! Brandy Purdy's depiction of them is insightful and accurate, outrageous though it may seem that a king would behave that way." It is emphatically not 'accurate'; Edward and Piers didn't meet again until almost two weeks after Edward's wedding to Isabella, and Edward did not give Isabella's jewels to Piers, an invention of many centuries later (I am more sick than I can adequately express of that wretched myth). Purdy has Eleanor de Clare marrying Hugh Despenser in 1318 after he has become her uncle's favourite, a dozen years after she actually did. Edward, naturally, abandons Isabella when she's pregnant in 1312 to save Piers, even though he didn't really.
I asked myself if I'd like the novel more if it weren't about Piers Gaveston and Edward II, but about an invented king and his invented promiscuous lover. In all honesty I probably wouldn't dislike it quite as much as I do, but I'm afraid I'm really not a fan of Purdy's overly melodramatic writing style, with breathless italics and countless exclamation marks!!! on just about every page. On page 52, for example, twenty-two words are written in italics and there are twenty exclamation marks. Page 61 has sixteen exclamation marks and fifteen words in italics; page 147 has twenty-one exclamation marks and no fewer than thirty-four words in italics. On one page. I find it tiring and tiresome to read. There are some things I do like in the novel: Piers' attempts to be kind and affectionate towards his innocent young wife Margaret de Clare - even though he does abandon her on their wedding night to sleep with her uncle - and his love for his daughters Joan (with Margaret) and Amy (with a woman named Sarah). A lot of the description is very well and vividly done, and Piers as 'unreliable narrator' is at times skilfully done and Purdy makes good use of her choice to write in first person. But it's a shame to see a fascinating man like Piers Gaveston written as little more than a lovelorn prostitute with so many of the fascinating events of his life skated over or ignored altogether, and a shame to see a novel perpetuating unpleasant stereotypes about gay and bi men's behaviour. OK if you want a quick salacious read, but Confession has precious little to do with history.
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