Review: The Confession of Piers Gaveston by Brandy Purdy

The history books tell us that Piers Gaveston was many things: arrogant, ambitious, avaricious, flamboyant, extravagant, reckless, brave, and daring, indiscreet, handsome, witty, vivacious, vain, and peacock-proud, a soldier and champion jouster, the son of a condemned witch, who used witchcraft, his own wicked wiles, and forbidden sex to entice and enslave King Edward II, alienate him from his nobles and advisors, and keep him from the bed of his beautiful bride Isabelle. Edward’s infatuation with Gaveston, and the deluge of riches he showered on him, nearly plunged England into civil war. Now the object of that scandalous and legendary obsession tells his side of the story in The Confession of Piers Gaveston: “Mayhap even now, when I have only just begun, it is already too late to set the story straight. My infamy, I fear, is too well entrenched. Whenever they tell the story of Edward’s reign I will always be the villain and Edward, the poor, weak-willed, pliant king who fell under my spell, the golden victim of a dark enchantment. There are two sides to every coin; but when the bards and chroniclers, the men who write the histories, tell this story, will anyone remember that?”

Review by Alex Beecroft

This is the story of the passionate relationship between King Edward II and his favourite Piers Gaveston, told from Gaveston’s point of view, in the form of a diary written by him while he awaits his execution.

I couldn’t help but compare this book with Chris Hunt’s Gaveston which I read before it. That was a beautiful, accomplished book which still ended up making me despise both Edward and Gaveston for their disastrous political mismanagement of England. I wondered if Purdy’s book would have the same effect on me, but I’m glad to say that it didn’t. I think it’s slightly less well written in terms of mere literary style, but in her hands I only ended up despising Edward. After a slow start, Gaveston himself began to endear himself to me, and by about half way through I was really enjoying his company.

The result of which is that although I think Hunt’s is technically the better book, Purdy’s book is the one that I enjoyed most and would willingly read again.

The book begins with Gaveston introducing himself and telling us all about his terrible childhood. This was, I presume, in an attempt to build up a fund of sympathy for him which the reader would need to draw on later. However, this was the least successful part of the book for me for two reasons. One is simply that I feel I’ve seen the abusive childhood background too often for it to work as it is intended on me. From Batman to Harry Potter, heroes these days all seem to have had terrible childhoods and it no longer has the impact it once did.

My second problem with this part of the book was the importation of modern, Celtic-based paganism as the religion for which Gaveston’s mother was burned as a witch. Talk of “the Lady” made me wonder which lady in particular we were talking about – Nerthus? Eostre? Danu? A moment’s Googling reveals that in pre-Christian Gascony they worshipped a goddess called Mari who lived in a cave in the mountain of Anboto and met up with her consort Sugaar on Fridays to cause storms. Seeing a Gascon character talking about Samhain and the Isle of Apples struck me as just as odd as it might be to see an author go “oh, it’s all Judeo-Christian, isn’t it?” and make everyone in Britain go to the synagogue on Sundays.

However, once this part of the story was over with, and Gaveston was all grown up and presented to Edward, I found myself relaxing into the story, gaining a liking for the character’s voice and really quite enjoying his antics. This is not a novel for those who are interested in the politics of the time. We see everything from Gaveston’s point of view, and he is a vain, gossipy fellow who loves Edward madly (despite the fact that Edward, in this book, is intensely selfish and continually horny), and otherwise cares for little but his clothes. Court life is glossed over and the main players in the drama that is to come were only clear to me because I had read Chris Hunt’s book earlier. This didn’t worry me too much because, as a romance reader, I enjoy having a tight focus on the main relationship, and the book delivered there in spades.

Gaveston quips and seduces his way about the court with merry abandon. His childhood as a whore is used to excuse his promiscuity, but for me it didn’t need any excuse – it was one of his more endearing qualities. Edward is such a total git in this book, that I rather rejoiced to see him cuckolded, and there’s a puppyish desire to be loved at the bottom of Gaveston’s behaviour, which made me like the character better. His attempts to treat his wife with some affection also endeared him to me, and I enjoyed the character’s frank enjoyment of the finer things in life and his attempts to do no harm to anyone.

I was quite surprised at the way the relationship between Edward and Gaveston progressed. Surprised, because it isn’t a particularly romantic twist, but not unhappy. It was wholly consistent with the way Edward had been presented throughout, and had the excellent effect of allowing me to maintain my sympathy for Gaveston right up to the end. In fact my sympathy for him increased as the story went on and it began to look as if he was growing up and realising the impact his actions had on other people. For a brief moment I even forgot myself and hoped for a happy ending, although I know that history does not allow it.

It was very pleasant, after reading Hunt’s Gaveston, to find an antidote which allowed me to regain some of the liking I had once had for this much vilified historical character. Now that I know how difficult it must be to work with such material, I’m even more impressed. I recommend this as a read for people who like romance, but don’t require a happy ending, and who would enjoy spending a day or two in the company of a high spirited, sensuous, sensitive, fashion conscious young man who in the end proves to have a heart, too late for it to do him any good.

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