Four Amazing Women, One Powerful Tale

These were the most celebrated women of their time. Everyone knew who they were; wherever they went, they attracted crowds of admirers. Today, though, we’ve forgotten them; their stories have been subsumed by those of their husbands. I wanted to honor them by bringing them back to life in my new novel, FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS.

What drew you to the story of these sister-queens?

I was drawn primarily to two aspects of their lives: their accomplishments as women and their relationships as sisters.

Marguerite, Eléonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice of Provence were the first four sisters in history to all become queens – and of great kingdoms: France, England, Germany, and Italy (Sicily). I read Nancy Goldstone’s biography, FOUR QUEENS, but it left me wanting more. From her book I gained a sense of what they did, but not of whom they were.

I felt indignant over Marguerite’s struggle against a powerful, possessive mother-in-law and a religiously fanatical “mama’s boy” of a husband, and awed by the courage and intelligence she showed in Egypt when Turks battered at the walls of Damietta, where she had just given birth, and her husband and all his men waited in prison for her to rescue them – which she did.

I admired how Eléonore married, at 13, a man more than half her age (King Henry III of England was 28 at the time) and yet formed a solid marriage with him, becoming his true partner in ruling, as well as uplifting hundreds of her personal family members by means of appointments in the realm and the church and good marriages. She also fought like a true mother lion for her children’s interests.

I wanted to cry for Sanchia, blessed – and cursed – by exceptional beauty. Pious and shy, she was hardly queen material, but her mother’s ambitions landed her in marriage to a shrewd, money-grabbing womanizer who made her queen of a country that she abhorred: Germany. Her husband soon lost interest in her completely, and left her to die alone in their castle. What a sad tale: Had she lived the life she seemed best suited for – in the convent – she might have been a great abbess.

Beatrice completely intrigued me. So much younger than the rest of her sisters – she was barely a toddler when Marguerite left home to marry King Louis IX of France – she was also, apparently, her father’s favorite. When he died, he left Provence to her, throwing her sisters, and her life, into turmoil. Princes and their armies besieged her castle, aiming to take her by force. But Charles of Anjou, the youngest brother of France’s King Louis IX, succeeded, whisking her away on horseback to Paris, where they wed. What a romantic tale! Unfortunately, he was cruelly, ruthlessly ambitious, and Beatrice seems to have supported him, even recruiting 26,000 men to conquer Rome for the Pope, then leading them over an Alpine pass in the winter. What a gal!

How much of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS is history, and how much is fiction?

In “Four Sisters, All Queens,” I took a bare modicum of literary license. The events involving Abraham of Berkhamsted and the death of his wife are factual, but whether Sanchia or Richard was involved we do not know. Also, chroniclers of the time said that Marguerite negotiated her husband’s release from Egyptian prison using messengers, but I sent her directly to the Egyptian queen. And we do not know whether Marguerite really had a love affair with anyone, although we do know from Sir Jean de Joinville’s chronicle of the life of King Louis IX, her husband, that he enjoyed an intimate relationship of some sort with her.

What was your greatest challenge in writing FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS?

Sanchia and her husband, Richard
Oh, gosh, there were so many! Deciding which point of view to use was very tricky. Third person present tense? That would lend a sense of immediacy – like watching a film – but how could it work when everything happened so long ago? First person from each sister’s viewpoint? But what about the sisters who die before the book is over? I decided on telling the stories from the viewpoint of Marguerite, who lived the longest, but realized I wouldn’t be able to include intimate details of her sisters’ lives, since she wouldn’t know them. I got stuck about one-third of the way into the book. Then, one Sunday morning, I awoke with the thought, “I’m going to do it in third person present.” I got up and re-wrote Chapter 1, and loved it. The book flowed from that point onward.

Researching an entirely new era – my previous novels, THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and THE SWORD OF MEDINA, take place in 7th century Arabia – was so time consuming. I had to learn everything all over again, what they ate, what they wore, how they traveled, what their homes looked like, what their music sounded like, everything, in addition to the history of the era. Yikes! I understand now why some authors choose one era and stick to it. Unfortunately, I’m too ADD for that.

Fitting the events of all four sisters’ lives into one tale without having it sprawl too much – publishers have word limits, you know, because every page costs money – was another challenge. I had to make choices. And the events of their lives were so momentous and complex that they raised other issues, such as the struggle of the Catholic Church for power; rampant and vicious anti-Semitism; the politics behind, and cruelties of, the Crusades; misogynistic attitudes toward women and limits on their power and education; and more. “This book could be about so many things,” I moaned to my life partner, a writer of classical music. His suggestion: Focus on the emotional lives of my characters. It was the best writing advice I have ever received. I’m going to dedicate my next book to him.