The Ruling Passion- David Pownall

To those who know their British history, Piers Gaveston was the flamboyant, arrogant, ambitious man lurking behind the throne of the weak–willed Edward II – a king’s spoilt favourite who brought England to the brink of civil war.

The Ruling Passion, David Pownall’s eleventh novel, is a story of infatuation and a relationship pursued to destruction. Prince Edward was the only surviving son of Edward I, one of England’s greatest warrior kings, whose subjugation of the Welsh, campaigns against the Scots and massive programme of castle building nearly bankrupted the country. It’s probably true to say that there was never a son less like his father.

Piers Gaveston, often held up in later centuries as a salutary warning against kings’ favourites, was a Gascon by birth, who was made a companion to the young Edward by his father. Edward declared that he loved Gaveston ‘like a brother’ and heaped him with honours and gifts. Exiled three times and detested by the barons, he seemed to lead a charmed life and was indeed, according to contemporary records, a man of some wit and charm.

While some historians have suggested that the two young men merely entered into a brotherhood of arms – which was sufficient explanation for the intensity of their relationship –the general historical consensus is that they were lovers. That both were married elsewhere was not important, given the times.

David Pownall’s book examines this ill-fated relationship and its consequences but also looks at the relationship between a father so disappointed in his heir, and a son who was incapable of living up to his father’s expectations.

The book begins when Gaveston is already a favourite with the prince and ends with his grisly and sordid death on a muddy roadside in 1312. Edward, now King, is devastated by his favourite’s death, and this where the book leaves us. (We are spared Edward’s particularly awful death – if we are to believe Marlowe’s version, that is. Again, historians disagree but most say he was most probably smothered. They were dangerous times for those in power.)

Pownall is a playwright of note and he uses mostly dialogue to tell his story. There is little sense of time and place and the minimum of description. For such turbulent times there seems to be the minimum of action but people do talk a lot. The modern turn of phrase used (“Is Piers around?” “You Templars think you know everything, don’t you?”) doesn’t always sit easily with the subject, and certainly not with the times, although it does give an immediacy to the words –which is possibly why the BBC chose it for a recent Book at Bedtime.

Sue Dawson

The Ruling Passion, David Pownall,  £9.99 (ISBN: 978-1-842890509), Herbert Adler Publishing


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