Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham


Tony Riches

The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham

By Tony Riches
CreateSpace, November 2014

About the Book

England, 1441: Lady Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, hopes to become queen of England before her interest in astrology and her husband’s ambition leads their enemies to accuse her of a plot against the king. Eleanor is found guilty of sorcery and witchcraft. Rather than have her executed, King Henry VI orders Eleanor to be imprisoned for life.

More than a century after her death, carpenters restoring one of the towers of Beaumaris Castle discover a sealed box hidden under the wooden boards. Thinking they have found treasure, they break the ancient box open, disappointed to find it only contains a book with hand-sewn pages of yellowed parchment.

Written in a code no one could understand, the mysterious book changed hands many times for more than five centuries, between antiquarian book collectors, until it came to me. After years of frustrating failure to break the code, I discover it is based on a long forgotten medieval dialect and am at last able to decipher the secret diary of Eleanor Cobham.

My Review

An encrypted diary found hundreds of years later tells the life of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. Mistress, and then wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, uncle to Henry VI and presumed heir to the unmarried monarch, Eleanor’s ambitions grow as she gets closer to the crown. But Eleanor’s husband has powerful political enemies, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who wish to see the Gloucesters destroyed. When those enemies catch wind of rumors that Eleanor has employed magic to have a child and gain favor with the king, Humphrey’s foes have all the ammunition they need. Forced to carry a taper barefoot through the streets of London, Eleanor endures her penance without support from anyone, including her husband. Her story was as scandalous and irresistible to those of her time as the foibles of celebrities are to us today. She is imprisoned for the next ten years in a series of remote castles, her story long forgotten, but she manages one last rebellion, secretly committing her story to paper for generations to come.

The story flashes between the past and present: Eleanor’s life as a duchess and her life as a prisoner. This is an ambitious format for an author to use as a diary lends itself to a more factual retelling of events as opposed to the narration and dialogue one normally finds in a novel. Even so, the glimpses into Eleanor’s incredible rags to riches tale keep the story moving ahead at a strong pace. The mood evoked by a woman imprisoned in a tower on a remote island, abandoned by her husband and friends, no longer remembered by society is especially poignant.

I would have loved to have seen this story told through the eyes of those who came to possess Eleanor’s diary, however, to see the story unfold as they broke the code and read her story for the first time in centuries. The story is a solid, well-researched story detailing the rise and fall of a once powerful woman, but I think discovering this tale through the eyes of an antiquarian (something like Possession perhaps) would have added a fascinating spark to the story.

I received a copy of this book from Mr. Riches in exchange for an honest review.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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