At the beginning of 1948, Harvard University Press unenthusiastically received a manuscript from Amy Kelly, a seventy-year old woman who had been a headmistress at a girl’s school and a teacher of English composition at Wellesley College. Published in 1950, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings became the Press’s first New York Times bestseller, landing first at the #10 spot and remaining on the list for months. The book, which in 1971 was in the first group of paperbacks ever to be published by HUP, is one of the 100 significant titles we’ve chosen to commemorate our first 100 years. Below, longtime HUP sales representative Patricia Nelson reflects on the book.
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings bears re-reading with grace. Amy Kelly’s tightly woven prose tapestry might well have been described by Helen Sword in her practicum on Stylish Academic Writing: “serious, entertaining, straightforward, poetic, unpretentious, ornate, intimate, impersonal, and much in between.” Kelly lyrically inflects her portrait of Eleanor with sagacity, charm, gallantry, nobility, qualities the author attributes to highly stylized crowned heads carved on a Romanesque capital taken from the Langon chapel near Bordeaux and now in The Cloisters. That these are now thought not to be portrait heads of Eleanor and Henry II does not diminish the luminous restraint with which Kelly reads, beneath the stone’s wise calm, the age in which it was carved and its queen.
At perhaps fifteen, upon the sudden death of her father Count Guillaume of Poitou and Aquitaine, the Duchess Eleanor became heiress to one of the “goodliest” patrimonies of the feudal world. “The fief of the duchess was rich and desirable in itself; but its special importance was that its addition, through the marriage of its heiress to any other domain in western Europe, would raise that domain to preeminence over all others.” Her overlord Louis the Sixth married Eleanor in haste to his monkish second son and surviving heir, soon to be Louis VII. Eleanor is Queen of France in the Paris of Peter Abelard, of scholasticism and young men “consuming the last inch of candle wax to snare universals, corporeal or incorporeal.”
In the heat of civil war, Louis’ ravages and atrocities finally overcome him with remorse; the ultimately calamitous Second Crusade offers “the succor of Jerusalem.” Eleanor accompanies her husband on the years of crusade, but conflict and the lack of a male heir lead to separation. Eleanor secures an annulment, after fifteen years of marriage and two daughters, on grounds of consanguinity. Scarcely eight weeks later, Eleanor marries Henry, Duke of Normandy, a Plantagenet soon to wrest the crown of England. Her lands joined with his will create Henry’s destiny, the Angevin Empire stretching from the Pyrenees to England and Ireland, “a destiny owed not wholly to his own merit nor to Angevin contrivance, but also to some happy conjunction of the planets… It had been a lucky stroke determining the future fatefully—his unexpected capture of the Countess of Poitou.”
Was this fate or plan? Kelly leaves this to the reader, but I think weights the question on the side of intention, this queen who extricated herself from the French Capets, who empowered the Plantagenets by her lands and vassals. Kelly suggests it was at Rouen, as the Angevin star rose, that Eleanor “conned the hornbook” of statecraft, the “hungry falcon” politics, feudal and tough, under the tutelage of her mother-in-law the Empress Matilda. “Dangle the prize before their eyes, but be sure to withdraw it again before they taste it.” Eleanor gives Henry three daughters and four sons, the eaglets Henry II later has depicted in a fresco at Winchester as fledglings tearing apart their parent bird, clawing at his vitals. The great tales emerge, Henry’s clash with the haughty Beckett, fair Rosamond. Eleanor “made up her mind to cut off with the bright sword of the river her portion of the world from Henry’s, set up her second son as heir to her patrimony, and leave the king to make whatever division he could among his other heirs of what was left of his empire… And her decisions presently, says Devizes, ‘troubled’ the Angevin house ‘like that of Oedipus.’ ” Henry II, with his medieval gift of tears and mighty kingly rages, divides his kingdom among his sons sowing discord and resentment. Wife to Louis VII, wife to Henry II, mother of Richard II “Coeur-de-lion” and the youngest “Lackaland” King John—Eleanor will advise, take sides, keep watch, endure squander and exile, rule her lands in the absence of their lord, die old.
With exquisite discrimination about what can be known, Kelly does not impose on Eleanor; she imagines no household goods or gowns, lays no banquet tables, overhears no lost conversations, and conjures no inner thoughts. In Orville Prescott’s 1950 New York Times review, this history is described as “a long chronicle written with dash and spirit, but with no fictional lapses.” Only one object now exists which can definitively be tied to Eleanor, a rock crystal vase now in the Louvre, Eleanor’s marriage gift to her first husband Louis VII. Kelly relies on primary sources of the twelfth century, chronicles, epistles, biographies, and commentaries, and on “the contours of the land itself that gave scope for the florescence of a feudal aristocracy.” It is the literature of the Provençal, the fresh voice of the troubadour that brought Kelly to this work. “Through it shine glints of Ovidian sophistry and the rich romantic colors of Moorish Spain. It is a poetry highly organized in form, intellectually subtle, lusty, piquant, cynical, the pastime of a worldling, who lived each day with gusto, dined well, slept heartily, and recked little of the awful day of judgment.”
Amy Kelly was headmistress at Bryn Mawr School, succeeding the formidable Edith Hamilton, and later professor of English at Wellesley College. Her life personifies ideals of women’s education. In 1941 Kelly and Agnes Perkins, head of the department of English Composition, welcomed Vladimir Nabokov to Wellesley. Kelly fully retired in 1942, still working on her great book. Her gracious acknowledgements thank Véra Nabokov, whose lucid attention as an early reader one can only imagine. When published in 1950, Eleanor of Aquitaine surprised everyone with thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Like any artifact in time, this fine book has withstood the years with some abrasion, but no loss of dignity. Grave, festive, clear-eyed; this is that rare work, still green and welcoming.