Posts tagged ‘William Harman Black’


…and then a step to the right.



The plan, nebulous at first, gradually assumed clearer shape. Pedro resolved that as there had been a spiritual and legal rehabilitation of Inez’s shattered reputation, he would give her poor murdered body a physical recognition of the memory in which he held her. He decided that he would give the dead Inez the honor that Fate had denied her in life. Through love for him she forfeited the respect of his country, and he had as far as he could purged the remembrance in which it held her, but that was not enough. Now he made his plans to compel to kneel at her dead feet that Portugal which had even denied her any deference while she lived. He was not satisfied that she should coldly sleep as other dead women slept. She was his heart’s princess during life, and without her even asking, he promised that she should some day be his wife. Now he would make her Portugal’s queen after death…






My visitors will have noticed that my escape from 1688, over which I gloated at the end of last year, has not been quite so clean-cut as I hoped. Apart from the fact that I still have two outstanding posts to get written (neither of them Chronobibliography, granted), I wasn’t immediately able to shake off the dust of 2012, with my talent for over-complication rearing its ugly head once again and holding me back.

In fact, the very act of gloating over escaping 1688 stopped me from actually doing it, my New Year’s viewing of Captain Blood leading me to compare and contrast the film with the novel upon which it was based. Meanwhile, I also succumbed to temptation in another direction and tracked down a copy of A Queen After Death by William Harman Black, which to the best of my knowledge is the only English-language work of fiction to deal with the story of Inés de Castro. The title of this 1933 novel gave me hopes that its author had bought into the colourfully gruesome alternative version of events. He did—but that’s about all it has going for it.

The overwhelming problem with A Queen After Death is one of style: Black doesn’t seem to be quite sure whether he wants to be writing history or whether he wants to be writing fiction, and so falls between two stools, writing fiction in a plodding, this-happened-then-that-happened sort of way that almost manages to make this outré story boring. I have no knowledge of the author beyond the existence of this novel, but on the evidence before me I feel I can safely surmise that he was unacquainted with the principle of composition generally rendered as Show, don’t tell.

In fact, A Queen After Death offers surprisingly little to the casual reader; while its main interest for me turned out to be the resources that Black drew upon in his writing, several of which, after my brief but comprehensive plunge into the Inés mythos, were a bit too obvious for comfort.

Only two aspects of this novel as a novel really struck me. The first is its emphasis upon the ages of Pedro and Inés, only twenty and seventeen respectively at the beginning of their affair—in other words, not much older than those perennial poster-children for reckless and ultimate fatal teenage passion, Romeo and Juliet. Mostly with a focus upon Constança but also with reference to Pedro, both of whom were engaged and unengaged and engaged again by their ambitious parents with no thought beyond political expediency, the novel does consider, although not in the depth we would prefer, the inevitable consequences of emotional young people being treated like trading-cards.

The other notable point is that on those rare occasions that William Black manages a genuinely striking bit of writing, it is usually a sideline to his main narrative; he seems to have been hampered by the facts even when he wasn’t strictly sticking to them. I did enjoy his portrait of Afonso IV, who is depicted as a staunch adherent of marital fidelity and whose anger with his son is as much about Pedro’s broken vows as it is about his disobedience and the potential political consequences. Intriguingly, however, Afonso’s rigidly practised fidelity to his wife is presented as a perverse way of thumbing his nose at the memory of his father, Denis, who was a a man of peace, a lover of nature and a poet at a time when such things were all but unheard of, and so managed to win a reputation for saintliness in spite of producing a swarm of illegitimate children. There is also a clear suggestion that Afonso’s long-suffering queen, Beatrice, would have preferred it if her husband had found some other way of rebelling against his father.

(And of course, he did: one of the ironies of this whole sorry story is that in his youth Afonso waged war against his father, exactly as Pedro would end up doing to him.)

This is not to say, however, that the novel’s two big set-pieces, the torture-deaths of two of Inés’ assassins and her coronation, are not “striking bits of writing”, merely that no novelist, whatever his limitations, could really fail to make an impression with the material at his disposal.

The post-mortem coronation aside, A Queen After Death sticks close enough in a general way  to the facts of the Inés story to obviate the need for a synopsis. The novel opens with the offer of a marital alliance between Pedro and Costanza (Constança) being sent from Alphonso (Afonso) IV of Portugal to Don Juan Manuel, Duke of Valeña, one of the most powerful noblemen in Castile. After some hesitation, Costanza accepts, attracted by the vision of herself as Queen of Portugal. She makes it a condition of her acceptance that she should be accompanied to Lisbon by her cousin and friend, Inez (Inés) de Castro.

In Black’s telling, Pedro and Costanza simply have no spark between them. In contrast, the attraction between Pedro and Inez is immediate and powerful – and obvious to most onlookers at court, who think the worst prematurely. The two struggle against their feelings for a year, avoiding one another as much as possible, until one day when for no specific reason they give in to their mutual passion. Subsequently, they separately and jointly defy church, crown and public opinion in pursuit of their love affair.

Around the bare bones of the story, Black weaves aspects of the various renderings of the Inés story – mostly the various fictional renderings (which strikes me as rather unethical). His choice for the villain of the piece was the first thing to properly catch my attention – in two different ways. Firstly, I realised that the character of Don Alvares de Goncales  in Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise and its English translations is supposed to be Álvaro Gonçalves, one of the three real-life executioners of Inés, and one of those later tortured and executed by Pedro. (Confusingly enough, Gonçalves is called Goncalvo here.) Secondly, Black tells the story exactly the same way as Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac but recasts the villain role, making it Diogo Lopes Pacheco whose love for Inez turns to hate when she spurns his advances and makes it clear that she prefers an illicit relationship with Pedro to honourable marriage with him. Given this, I was not exactly surprised to find Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise in Black’s bibiography – about which I shall have more to say presently – although he spells de Brilhac’s name incorrectly.

In the novel, it is her growing fear of Pacheco that prompts Inez to send for her half-brothers, Fernando and Alvarez Perez de Castro, hoping for their protection. As in reality, the friendship between the brothers and Pedro is perceived as a Castilian threat to Portugal; here, however, is is equally because the brothers encourage Pedro to neglect his duties for drinking and carousing when he must be away from Inez. Meeting anger and disapproval everywhere else he turns, Pedro finds the dissolute brothers a relief and does permit them to influence his behaviour for the worst.

Another slice of reality, and perhaps the aspect of the true history that most puzzles me, is that Black fudges the timeline of the story, compressing the events or evading the issue of how much time actually passed. Thus he never engages with the curious fact that the relationship between Pedro and Inés – and, you’d think, any concomitant political fallout – was fifteen years old when it was decided that Inés had to die. No-one to my knowledge has ever identified a specific reason why she was suddenly condemned to death. Not even Afonso’s desire for Pedro’s remarriage seems a sufficient explanation: Constança had been dead, and Pedro had been refusing another alliance, for ten years when Inés was so brutally removed from the picture. Perhaps something was going on in Castile at that time that made it seem imperative; or perhaps the precarious health of the Infante Ferdinand made Inés’ children look like more than a threat to the throne than usual. (But in that case, why kill her but not them?) The whole thing seems to me bewilderingly unmotivated.

Be that as it may, the novel’s account of the execution of Inés is one of the things that most caught my attention—inasmuch as its depiction of events is lifted wholesale from António Ferreira’s play The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro; although I imagine that the immediate source was the 1825 English translation of the play by T. M. Musgrave (condemned by John R. C. Martyn in the introduction of his translation as “an archaic and verbose rendering”). Thus we have a reluctant Alphonso being persuaded by Pacheco, Gonçalves and Pêro Coelho that Inez has to die for the good of Portugal; the only original (or rather, non-Ferreira-derived) touch is that Pacheco is clearly pursuing his own vengeance against Inez and Pedro. (Again, after fifteen years?) Alphonso and the courtiers ride to the palace at Coimbra (not mentioned in the text prior to this), but when confronted by the sight of the beautiful Inez with her children – his grandchildren, albeit illegitimate – Alphonso cannot go through with it. He and the others ride away, but they have not gotten far before Pacheco manages to change Alphonso’s mind back again. Alphonso washes his hands of the matter in the approved Pilate-esque manner, leaving the others to do as they will. They hurry back to the palace before the vacillating king can have second, or rather third, thoughts (which he does, but too late), and together stab Inez to death.

Which brings me back to a point I made in passing in my original post: if you want a post-mortem coronation, you cannot have Inés beheaded.

Pedro’s rebellion against his father follows, as well as his ascension to the throne in 1357. As you would expect, the novel picks up at this point, depicting Pedro’s obsession with the memory of Inez becoming a slow slide into madness. He broods over all the possible ways he might rehabilitate her reputation, and suddenly produces witnesses who swear to a gathering that includes the highest-ranking clerics in Portugal that they were present at the marriage of Pedro and Inez. This accomplished, and overtly accepted whatever the country’s private doubts, Pedro’s thoughts then turn to his revenge against the men who killed Inez. He enters into negotiations with Castile, and exchanges several Castilian prisoners for Goncalvo and Coelho; tipped off in time, Pacheco manages to get away, and lives in exile in France until Pedro’s death. (In-text, this is a frustrating turn of events given Pacheco’s casting as Inez’s deadly enemy.)

As far as A Queen After Death ever garnered any critical attention, it was not the coronation scene but the lengthy and gruesomely detailed account of the torture and execution of Goncalvo and Coelho that provoked a reaction:

As the effects of their free wine wore off, both Pedro and the executioner, with whom the king kept in touch by signals, saw that the crowd was sickening of this exhibition of inhumanity. Pedro resolved to end it with a combination of unparalleled hellishness… From the brazier the executioner took the red hot pincers and plucked off the ears of Coelho and the lips of Goncalvo. Goncalvo howled wild a wildcat, and again every blood vessel in his face seemed red and bursting. The muscles in his arms and across his chest twitched and swelled, but the man lived on. The blood spurted from  his mouth, and where his lips had been pulled out by the hot pincers there was a thick swollen piece of raw, bloody meat, smoking and smelling like flesh burning over hot, slow embers… As the executioner reached for one of the keen knives, Coelho regained consciousness for a moment. Lifting his head as high as the choking garotte would allow, he had just strength enough to say in a voice that was below the pitch of a whisper, but firm and masculine: “Here you will find a heart that is truer than a horse’s and stronger than a bullock’s.” As he said this he pointed to his left side and died with the fortitude of a soldier. In a moment the knife slit his skin like a thin piece of silk, and with the still smoking pincers his heart was plucked out and held aloft…

But even this doesn’t entirely sate Pedro:

His stormy heart raced and quivered at the thought of the loveliness that had been Inez, struck down by cowards’ blows with never a hand raised in her defense. When the full realization would sweep over him that he had indeed lost her forever, that never again would those lovely eyes be raised, brimming with love, to his, that he would never again hear her voice, never feel the touch of her hands, then the wild thing that leaped and coursed and yet was Pedro’s heart slowed down, almost ceased to beat, became a leaden thing, cold, like a heavy stone in his breast. Brooding and silent, he sat or walked alone, and out of the blackness of his despair, out of a loneliness and longing that carried him close to the vague line of madness, was born the idea that first struck his listeners with superstitious terror…

Pedro accordingly rounds up Portugal’s “masters of pageantry” and sets them to work planning the most elaborate and costly coronation the country has ever seen. He, meanwhile, travels to Coimbra to oversee the exhumation; although it is the unfortunate nuns of the convent next door to whom the task of dressing Inez falls. Placed back in her coffin, Inez forms the centrepiece of a procession that rolls slowly from Coimbra to Alcobaça, passing through numerous villages and attracting crowds of disbelieving peasants. The priests of the abbey at Alcobaça have followed their orders, and the coronation begins:

The loving hands of the sweet sisters again arranged the royal robe and tried to push the golden hair over the most revolting part of the features of Inez and strong soldiers bore her to a room in the monastery that was turned into a temporary reception hall. Under a canopy of flaming blue silk, two chairs of state were placed side by side, and into one of them the pitiful form of Inez was propped. After infinite trouble, the crown of Portugal, burnished for the occasion, which had not been worn since Pedro’s mother died, was placed on the toppling head of Pedro’s love. There stood at the back and at the side of the inert form two grandees who made certain that the body did not slip from the throne… Then, beginning with the Grand Seneschal, grandees, churchmen, soldiers, nobles, in a long procession passed the stiff form, and each with courtly bow made low obeisance by kissing the dead hand of Inez…

The carving of the elaborate marble tombs of Pedro and Inez follows; after which there is nothing much left for Pedro to do but lie down and die, which he does with a minimum of fuss.

All very romantic, I’m sure, provided you like your romance spiced up with torture and necrophilia (and who doesn’t?); yet for all of it, what stayed with me most about A Queen After Death was another, far more subtle tampering with the facts, a single betraying detail, which the novel tries to slide past in its early stages:

Pedro loved hawking, the chase, music, drinking, and the usual companions who attached themselves to a man who will someday be king. He could ride like a centaur; his bow was true, and his sword was strong. Indeed, his life already showed that his entire make-up was essentially Portuguese. He had boasted the Portuguese Doña Theresa Lourenco as his “official” mistress, and by him she had a son, afterwards King John I…

Except that John was born in 1357, two years after the execution of Inés.

Nothing ruins a good story like the facts, does it?

“The facts” bring me to the final telling aspect of this novel: it carries both extensive historical notes and a lengthy bibliography. It is not endnoted as such, but the notes do refer back to specific pages in the novel, reporting their various sources as they go. They begin enthusiastically, filling in historical details of Portugal and Castile and their many alliances and even more numerous conflicts. Curiously, however, as we get to the meat of A Queen After Death, they begin to trail away, with encyclopaedias and histories giving way to more populist texts—and when it comes to the all-important coronation scene, we find ourselves left with a single source:

George W. Young, Portugal Old And New. Clarendon Press, 1917.

Damn you, facts!