Review: The Ruling Passion by David Pownall

The Ruling Passion is a story of infatuation and a relationship pursued to its destruction.  Prince Edward was the only surviving son of Edward I, one of England’s greatest warrior kings, whose subjugation of the Welsh, campaign against the Scots and massive programme of castle building near-bankrupted the realm.  Not only was Prince Edward unsuited to carry through his father’s military ambitions, as heir to the throne, but his defiant resistance to every pressure to abandon his relationship with the Gascon warrior Piers Gaveston was to have disastrous consequences.

Review by Fiona Glass

I’ve had to give up on this book, 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 repetitive.  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.

Buy from : Amazon UK Amazon USA

12 Responses

  1. Oh lordy. Like you I got excited when I saw what this was about, but thanks for the tip off – I’ll give it a miss.




  2. Hi Anne! Well, I *could* have missed all the sex through not finishing the book *g* but I skimmed as much as I could bear and it all seemed to read pretty much the same right the way through….

  3. I second the thanks for the warning – this is a period I know a little about and I would have picked it up otherwise.

  4. Others might enjoy it more than I did – but I would certainly recommend borrowing rather than buying!

  5. I had exactly the same reaction; you’re lucky you borrowed it from the library! Because I am a bit of a Piers/Edward fangirl, I bought mine from Amazon UK (yes, despite the current exorbitant exchange rate plus international shipping costs).

    And… oh dear. So disappointing, especially from an established author. For a book supposedly about a passionate friendship/affair, it was told in an extremely flat and passionless way. I found the prose terribly hard going; the choice of “William Wild” (who is always alternately referred to by his full name or the epithet “the Irishman”- two of my pet hates at once, yay!) as the apparent primary focus was odd and a bit irritating (since this was a book about Piers and Edward, I expected it would be from one or the other’s perspective), and unfortunately the whole thing just didn’t engage me at all. I think I got up to about a quarter of the way through before putting it aside.

    I think because of the subject matter, the good reviews elsewhere and the fact that this _was_ an established author, I expected a great deal more.

  6. Hi Rachel, I’m sorry you were disappointed too, but glad in a way it wasn’t just me! I wondered if I was missing something, or that Pownall was being brilliant and I hadn’t spotted it, but it seems not. 😉

    I got a quarter of the way through, too. Wonder if we gave up at the same spot?

  7. Thanks for the review. My complete obsession with the life and works of Christopher Marlowe might otherwise have made me think about buying this, to see if there was a different perspective to Edward and Gaveston than the one Marlowe gave in Edward II. To be honest, the plot of the book sounds an awful lot like an outline of the play, only not, apparently, as well-written. Too bad.

  8. It definitely wasn’t up to Marlowe’s standards!

  9. Has anyone read Chris Hunt’s Gaveston novel? I loved his Street Lavender, and so wonder if his treatment of similar subject matter might work better than this evidently did. It’s a period I’d like to know more about.

  10. I haven’t heard of Chris Hunt. Do you know what his Gaveston book is called?

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