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Great Maria by Cecelia Holland

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Great Maria by Cecelia Holland

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Mon August 25th, 2008, 7:10 pm

Great Maria by Cecelia Holland

This is a novel set [not sure where], during the [not sure which] century, based on the historical personages [not sure whom]. But like all of Holland’s novels, it is crammed with details of daily life and culture and characters who both develop over time and yet are drawn consistent to the core.

In brief, Maria, the daughter of a petty robber-baron, forms a girlish crush on the handsome knight Roger but is urged by her father to marry his less charming but more able brother Richard and has the good sense to agree. Richard, brutish and graceless but with the sense to value his wife’s gifts, is ambitious. Over the years, he avoids a plot by Maria’s father, outfoxes the local barons despite insufficient manpower, and gets the peasants and serfs on his side with just weights and laws. During this ‘one darn thing after another’ plotless plot, he eventually gathers enough knights to him to pose a serious threat to the local Saracens.

While he is off fighting, Maria bears his children, deals with encroaching neighbors and local spies, settles disputes between villagers, and lusts after handsome Roger. When he is home, the pair match wills against each other. Nowhere have I appreciated Holland’s understanding of the era as in this ‘battle of the sexes’ where she remains completely in the period and completely in character. Nevertheless, Maria is a strong-willed woman who knows when to give and when to press. In one scene which is very telling of her character, when her husband removes all the workmen who are building the promised shrine for their deceased daughter –Richard has very good reason, as they are needed to build defenses that will keep them all safe – Maria stubbornly remains at the shrine and finishes the work, alongside the monks, with her own unskilled hands.

As the plot plods on, both spouses mature along with their children and their ambitions but the bond between them grows stronger and deeper. Altogether, this was the most satisfying aspect of the novel.

The most frustrating, however, was the meandering narrative that felt like ‘300 pages of day-today detail on medieval life’ and the complete lack of context. Perhaps reading the back cover material would have helped, but this was a jacketless hardback when I got it. After I finished, the clues that I had been given narrowed it down to somewhere along the north Mediteranean, perhaps Greece or Sicily, when Jerusalem was in the hands of the Saracens and the first Papal schism, which would make it around 1040.

This is the third Holland novel I have read, and falls midway between the other two. Rakossy I loved; besides Holland’s meticulous attention to detail and her tightly-drawn, believable characters it had a distinct plot – marriage, impending war, battle, conclusion. City of God I hated because although it had a plot, the destruction of the Borgias and the protagonist who helped accomplish that, the well-drawn characters and details were not pleasant to spend time around, with no redeeming lightness to balance the mud.

Great Maria has all the believability of Rakossy and characters that charm and hold your attention. What it lacks is a plot driver. If Maria were to sit down and tell her story, somehow I don’t think she’d do it in this long-drawn-out fashion. She’d pick the highlights, arranging the scenes so as to pull her listeners through to the eventual conclusion.

I’ll give it four stars.
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Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
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Postby Margaret » Mon August 25th, 2008, 7:29 pm

What a coincidence - I just got done with a post about this novel in the "By Country/Continent" section! Great Maria is set in medieval Sicily, and specifically in the 11th century, though the narrative itself never says where or when it is set. Cecelia Holland's website gives the setting information - otherwise, one would have to be an expert on this rather obscure (but very interesting) time and place to figure it out.

I think there's more plot to Great Maria than is immediately obvious; it's really about Maria's persistent struggle to gain Richard's respect and a measure of power over her own life, even when that may conflict with the first goal. Often, the steps she takes toward her goals are subtle. And because she's portrayed very realistically, she isn't always consciously calculating in accordance with her goals - sometimes she acts impulsively, as real people do.

One of the wonderful things about this novel, and about Cecelia Holland's writing generally, is that she never modernizes her characters' thoughts and feelings in order to make her readers like them more. Maria is pious in a way that most of us would find ridiculous in a modern person, and she's terribly prejudiced against the Saracens. But she fits her time and she grows. She had my sympathy and understanding throughout.

I enjoyed your review, MLE. I've posted one of my own at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info/Great-Maria.html.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings and over 650 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Mon August 25th, 2008, 8:01 pm

I read your review too, Margaret. There were lots of back-and-forth replies on the original post of this thread, regarding which baron it was and what the setting was. I guess they are gone into cyberspace with all the rest of the old forum. Ah well, it gievs us all a chance to start fresh.
I have no idea what happened to my review of Rakossy. My computer doesn't have a copy, maybe I wrote it online. Pits. http://www.historicalfictiononline.com/forums/images/smilies/frown.gif
:(
my facebook posts https://www.facebook.com/emilylaurencotton are public, generally things I find amusing.
my passions: fair trade, ending slavery, and justice.
"Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects." Will Rogers
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Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Rakossy

Postby Margaret » Mon August 25th, 2008, 11:29 pm

[Rakossy] is another good Holland novel. I'm sorry your review is lost. We'll just have to reread it! This must have been the first or second Holland novel that I read, and it is certainly one of her best, but I haven't read it in many years.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings and over 650 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Leyland
Bibliophile
Location: Travelers Rest SC

Postby Leyland » Tue September 2nd, 2008, 4:29 pm

Great Maria is one of my all time favorites and I’ve read it several times since my early twenties or thereabouts. Maria is an unforgettable character to me and stands out because of her spirit and perseverance from girlhood through maturity. I don’t recall many other female characters with lives filled with so much political danger, violence, and social/domestic/spiritual issues that required such endurance and intrigue to ensure her own safety from her beginning as a ‘lower level Norman pawn’ to her development as a capable chatelaine for a lord such as Richard. Her relationship over the years with Richard is also a great story and very meaningful.

Anyway, it’s a well-told detailed and complex story about a remarkable character. I wonder if Holland was inspired a bit by the later lived Margaret of Navarre, Queen of Sicily (1128-1183). She sounds in some ways similar to Maria regarding marriage and relationships, a strong will and sense of leadership, as well as her determination to create a spiritual legacy.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_of_Navarre


NOTE: The above is pasted from a post I made on the old site on 5.5.08

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Telynor
Bibliophile
Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

Postby Telynor » Tue May 25th, 2010, 6:43 pm

Surprising what you will find digging through old stuff on the computer. I found the link to a review of Great Maria I wrote back in '01. It's still one of my favourite historicals, and it's clearly time to give it a good rereading.

http://www.epinions.com/review/Great_Maria_by_Cecelia_Holland/content_38281121412

I'm very glad to hear that it is going to be reprinted this summer.

User avatar
Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Postby Margaret » Wed May 26th, 2010, 2:01 am

Good review, Telynor, of one of my old favorites. I have to say, though, that I have never thought this novel was a romance, and I certainly don't think Holland intended it to be read as such!
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings and over 650 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Elizabeth
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Postby Elizabeth » Wed May 26th, 2010, 1:20 pm

GREAT MARIA is one of my all-time favorites as well. It's funny, but it never occurred to me to think of it as lacking in plot... I guess I was (and still am) so caught up in the intensity of Maria's character and vivid detail of her life. She is so wholly a creature of her place and time that she seems utterly alien to my twentieth-century (well, it was still the twentieth century when I first read this) sensibilities. At the same time, how I would love to sit down and have dinner with her! Would definitely have someone tasting the wine first, though. :)
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User avatar
Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Postby Margaret » Wed May 26th, 2010, 2:38 pm

She is so wholly a creature of her place and time that she seems utterly alien to my twentieth-century (well, it was still the twentieth century when I first read this) sensibilities.


Well said. That's why I love her, too. On my first one or two reads of Great Maria, I didn't have any sense that the plot was lacking at all. On later reads, I can see what other people mean when they say this. Maria is under so much constraint at times that the plot seems to slip underground for awhile, like one of those rivers that runs under the surface of the earth. But it's always there, I think. The ending is so triumphant - and wouldn't be if the scenes that are not as dynamic on the surface were missed out.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings and over 650 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Telynor
Bibliophile
Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

Postby Telynor » Wed May 26th, 2010, 7:19 pm

"Margaret" wrote:Good review, Telynor, of one of my old favorites. I have to say, though, that I have never thought this novel was a romance, and I certainly don't think Holland intended it to be read as such!


Thank you! I'm still trying to find my copy of it to reread.


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