FEATURE: Lise Arin

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Lise Arin is the author of the recently published novel, Matilda Empress, the story of a woman struggling to achieve her political ambitions at a time when her birthright, her aptitude, her experience and her talents were not enough to guarantee her success. Formerly, Lise earned a Masters of Arts, a Masters of Philosophy and a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in History and Literature from Harvard University. She has taught courses on the 18th- and 19th-century novel and on the mechanics of writing at both Columbia University and Barnard College. She lives in New York City and is hard at work on her second novel, entitled Damsel.

Excerpt from Matilda Empress 

Hearken to me, Bernard de Ventadour, for I sing to you the history of a beautiful queen of the English and the terrible wars and devastation that convulsed her mighty realm. Her celebrated comeliness ornamented her high lineage, and she married to complement her status. Yet her bold, fierce desires brought forth much trial and tribulation. Only when she learned to abase herself did the Lord lift up His countenance upon her, and grant peace to her and to her people. Be it known unto you that she was Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England.

Woe unto that obstinate minstrel! Son of a kitchen maid, who is he to recite my chronicle, and make his art of my fate? His poem distorts the truth, so that I am reduced to a shallow figure of sin and suffering, almost grotesque in my contorted passions, inexplicably drawn to the forces that would destroy me and my kingdom. He paints me as a gargoyle, a she-beast frozen in vice whose redemption seems miraculous, unmerited, unexplained. Retired from the world, at the priory of Notre-Dame-du- Pré, outside Rouen in the Duchy of Normandy, I still catch wind of his stilted, simplistic narrative. Worthy readers, listen to me, as well as to the versemaker; I am more than his opportunistic entertainment.

I have had plenty of time to record my own story. I did not dictate my recollections to a clerk, but wrote down my memories in the years of quiet hours that I whiled away in my solar. My script is not elegant, like that of a monk; my letters are often cramped and ill-formed and never seem to stretch out evenly across my page. But what I recalled was too private, at the time, for the assistance of a secretary. I submit to you simple strips of parchment, rolled up and tagged with my imperial seal.

Authentic copies, meticulously replicated by the trusted scribes of this priory, and signed in my own hand, have been transported in ironbound oaken coffers to the courts of those of highest birth and consequence. Each chest has three locked compartments, to separate the scrolls into chronological periods, for my archive unspools at length. Those parchments on the left, the Treasury of the Lion, begin the tale; those in the center, the Matter of the Crown, continue it; those on the right, the Mirror of the Plantagenet, bring my tumultuous biography to completion.

You, who are so illustrious as to have received my gift, must disseminate it among your foremost vassals. Call a festival! My testament shall serve as its centerpiece. Let it divert your crowd of barons, in the idle days away from their fields of war. Rely on it to amuse your gaggle of baronesses, lessening the boredom of exchanging stale pleasantries and calculating the cost of each other’s jewels.

See to it that you hire only the most polished player to relate my legend. But remember: my epic is not merely a jongleur’s stylized performance, improvised and evolving, shifty and sly. Do not allow your man to strum lightly on a harp, or bat his limpid eyes at you, to weaken your discrimination or befuddle your taste. He may sing for his supper, as that fool Bernard does, washing your roast meat down with your spiced wine, but the words that fall from his mouth will be nothing but the truth.

Bernard’s confabulations have been constructed to keep your interest through the lull of an evening, and if, in the light of the day, my reputation suffers for his creativity, his honor is none the worse for it. To each of my texts, I append de Ventadour’s version of events. If you, noble gentlemen of distinction and discernment, princes all, are not inclined to credit my side of the story, I will pray for the salvation of your understanding, along with that of your soul. Courtly ladies, I have undertaken to recount my saga in your name, for I trust to your generosity of spirit and refinement of judgment.

As my history unfolds, you will find romance aplenty, for love always transforms the adventures of a woman, whatever her destiny. Fear not—as my account unravels, ultimately there will be redemption in faith. If I sank into the abyss of sin, I also crawled toward the oasis of virtue. If I plumbed the depths of suffering, I also climbed the mountains of joy. If I fought under the banner of love, it was in fealty to two different empires, one of the spirit and one of the flesh. Be it known unto you that I was the Empress of the Romans, the queen of England, the Duchess of Normandy, and the Countess of Anjou, who yet never ruled over the territory of her chosen knight’s heart. Be it known unto you that I myself arose to conquer the largest fief, achieving the most sumptuous reward, the blessing of heaven.

Before you can begin to unwind the annals of Matilda Empress, and compare them to that arse of a minstrel’s adaptation, I must describe what came to pass in 1110, when I was still Princess Alice Ethelric, the eight-year-old daughter of King Henry I of England. Before the year was out, I fulfilled the ambitions of my most august father, departing my homeland as the betrothed of Henry V, king of Germany and Italy and the Holy Roman emperor.

That summer, I prepared to take leave of my family and country. I was but weakly attached to my younger brother, Prince William, presumptive successor to the English throne, nor did he value me. An anxious youth, he was devoted only to our half-sister Maud, blonde and placid, born to one of our father’s mistresses. I did regret the coming separation from my half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the only illegitimate sibling for whom I had any respect. More regal than Prince William, he had inherited Henry I’s talents, and would have made a fine king. But Robert refused to be bitter about his birth, for he surpassed all of the court in manners as well as in accomplishments. He cared for me, who saw his true worth.

My royal father was wont to ignore such a weasel as I. Now that I was to be Holy Roman empress, he boasted of me, of my position in our dynasty. My fiancé was the most powerful king in Christendom. I was acknowledged as Maud’s superior, William’s foremost sister, and England’s preeminent daughter. My willfulness was forgotten. Never again was I to be trussed up and plunged into a filthy moat to cure me of my disobedient humor. As the affianced of Henry V, I no longer had to submit to chastisement. I pledged to display, heretofore, a proper and feminine softness, but this was a vow that I made to myself.

Attention, how I courted it as a girl! My Uncle David always obliged me, and was heard to prophecy that Henry V would fall down on his knees in approval and thanksgiving when he saw me bedecked in nuptial jewels and draperies. Busybodies speculated that Uncle David hankered to wed me himself. His brother, Alexander king of Scotland, had married one of my bastard sisters, Sybil. I was quite fond of David, but it was much more to my liking to be an empress at the center of Europe than a lady-in-waiting in a cold, northern keep. The one time Uncle embraced me, catching me alone in a damp alley of Westminster castle and pressing me against a mossy wall with his legs, I squirmed out of his hot grip and scampered away. David laughed and let me go, for he would not force himself upon a royal kinswoman.

The scandalmongers who whispered about every couple entangled in the dark passages of our palaces thought me too young to be the subject of their talk, yet I knew all about men’s appetites—the daughter of King Henry could not be ignorant. Unbeknownst to them, I also kissed my cousin Stephen, King Henry’s favorite nephew, the younger son of his sister, the Countess of Blois. His Majesty had gifted the boy with many royal estates, such as the Counties of Mortain and Lancaster. Close to me in age, the redheaded youth often made one of our family parties. And one day, while exploring the shadowy corners of a brew house, evading its cobwebs and mouse droppings, we tumbled over one another. I enjoyed the taste of his soft lips and the pressure of his warm tongue in my mouth. After a moment, my cousin pushed me off and swore me to secrecy.

Before my betrothal, I had hoped to be plighted to Stephen, as my father seemed to intend him for a great match. Later, promised to the Holy Roman emperor, I was content. An ambitious princess, I scorned the status of countess. To a child, life stretched wider than love.

Resplendent in their continental finery, the German envoys sent to collect me from the provincial English court were relieved to find me very willing to depart. They praised my newly dignified demeanor, judging me well suited to rule over Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Poland, and Hungary. With my ancestry and education, and dark-haired, dark-eyed budding beauty, they declared that I should make the emperor a fine wife. It was foreseen that I would bear Henry V many sons. Yet “Ethelric,” so purely Anglo-Saxon, dismayed the ambassadors; “Alice” bored them. My name was changed to match the future that awaited me. Born a princess, I stood ready to be lifted higher, transformed into the fabled Matilda Empress.

Despite my feelings of anticipation, the sea voyage to Boulogne sickened me. Traveling overland was no better than sailing, and I suffered from bruises and chafing instead of nausea. We were quite a long, unwieldy procession of carts and pack animals, all laden with my dowry of magnificent treasures. Each endless day, we rose at dawn to recite mass. At midday, we halted briefly to eat, then drove on until dusk. Although I could dispense with my fear of sea monsters and drowning, I was constantly on the lookout for trolls, giants, and bandits along the unfamiliar highways and desolate byways.

Sometimes we sought harbor at a monastery, but those accommodations were rarely amenable. Unwilling to permit visitors any novelty or luxury, the religious guesthouses were often littered with heels of rotting bread, heaps of gnawed bones, and scraps of soiled linen. The monks seldom bothered to launder the blankets, and my retinue set to shaking and sunning them, in an almost futile attempt to eradicate their lice and fleas. In accordance with my station, I was usually allotted a private cell, but even my grate sat empty of firewood. If there was a basin or tub, it was invariably filled with the dirty water of its last occupant. No one suggested that I bathe my feet, nor was I tempted to do so. I slept fitfully in my filthy hose, clutching my arms against the cold.

On better days, I warmed myself in front of a blazing hearth, washed my extremities, and slept deeply in a featherbed at commodious, pleasant castles belonging to obsequious barons. In return for their hospitality, they plied me with questions about the state of the roads and the health and welfare of their neighbors and relatives. Eager to gossip, the baronesses squawked about the personal charms of my affianced husband. Tall, thin, and blond, with a nose like a hawk’s beak, he had ignited a flame in the breast of many a German damsel, but had not wished to serve and honor any of them. Certain noble ladies insisted that he had escaped the wounds of passion’s arrows; others claimed that he had a black stone instead of a heart and thus could not love any woman.

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