‘The Ruling Passion’ by David Pownall

I’ve had to give up on this, which was a shame as I really wanted to like it. It’s about a period of history that I know very little about – the death of King Edward I and the accession of his unpopular son Edward II – and all the blurbs raved about the ‘infatuation’ of the younger Edward for his friend Piers Gaveston.

Take this, for instance, from the front cover: “When Edward, Prince of Wales, met Piers Gaveston, it was the start of a passionate and defiant relationship that was to bring England to the brink of Civil War.” Sounds fascinating, I thought. How interesting to find out exactly what happened and what effect such an unusually open homosexual relationship had on the medieval monarchy of England. The trouble is that by the time the book starts, Edward has already known Piers for about ten years so all the drama of their meeting is lost, and the author seems to positively shy away from any mention of a sexual relationship between the two men. An occasional minor character mouths off about ‘sodomites’ and there are pages of angst between Edward I and his chief advisor William Wild about the problems the infatuation is causing, but nowhere does the reader get to see that infatuation, or anything more than a close ‘buddy’ style friendship, for themselves. Indeed, the few times Prince Edward and Piers appear together it’s in wholly innocent pastimes – teaching a servant to swim, riding off to the hunt, chatting and drinking and having the sort of fun that young men have together in any historical era. We’re never, ever shown why this relationship teeters over into infatuation or why it should be so dangerous to the crown.

The book’s style doesn’t help. Apparently Pownall is better known for writing plays and it really shows. There is very little action and very little narrative beyond some rather basic descriptions of the ‘she was wearing a blue dress’ variety; instead all we get is pages and pages of modern-sounding, iconoclastic dialogue between various characters which is rather banal and wholly repetetive. A quarter of the way through the book, the old king and his advisor were still having the same conversation they’d had on the very first page, which boils down to ‘What are we going to do about Ned?’ ‘I don’t know, sir’. I expect dialogue to accomplish more in a book. It should reveal things about the characters – their background, their hidden feelings, their habits – not just be used to ram home the plot or the book’s major themes for pages at a time. Added to this the whole style of writing is surprisingly juvenile with simple sentences, childish speech-patterns and a distinct lack of imagery. Prince Edward is supposed to be nineteen but comes across as about ten years younger than that which is disconcerting to say the least.

Pownall has written a total of eleven novels. I couldn’t help noticing that whilst the earlier ones were published by the likes of Faber and Gollancz, this one was published by ‘Herbert Adler Publishing’, who I have never even heard of before. Whether that was a deliberate choice or not I have no way of telling, but the book really isn’t very good. I’ll be taking it back to the library tomorrow.


Review also appearing at Speak Its Name.


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