Plaidy's Eleanor of Aquitaine: cardboard cutout, not cunning queen [BY]M. Melissa Pressley

The Courts of Love, by Jean Plaidy. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 379 pp. $18.95. Jean Plaidy, the historical novelist who also writes under the pseudonyms of Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, has a reputation for evoking bygone eras with sumptuous detail and strong characters. Her latest offering, ``The Courts of Love,'' is a fictional ``autobiography'' of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis VII of France and later of Henry II of England, and mother of Richard Lionheart and King John, signatory of Magna Carta. But Plaidy isn't living up to her reputation. Unlike her previous books, ``The Courts of Love'' is psychologically anachronistic, poor in detail, thus barren of new insight.

Written in the first person singular, ``The Courts of Love'' is more the journal of a modern-day adolescent harping on her feelings about the boys in her English class than the thoughts of the cunning, resourceful, and intelligent 12th-century woman whose actions influenced the powers of Western Europe. Plaidy's Eleanor is self-absorbed and petulant. She repeats, like a litany, such passages as ``I was annoyed. He cared more for Becket than he ever had for me. It was humiliating ... he had killed my love for him.''

Curiously, it is only when she writes of Henry II that any breath of life is injected into the work. His turbulent relations with Thomas `a Becket, and later with his rebellious sons, are so uncompromisingly individual, his stances so radical, that even Plaidy's stultifying prose cannot rob them of their drama.

But for the most part, ``The Courts of Love'' is a truncated history. It lacks the details that enable a reader to make sense of recorded events, and the description that allows a reader to see and hear through the window of the past. Even the reader with extensive knowledge of this period may feel disoriented. Plaidy has reduced the historical figures to cardboard cutouts with only the crudest features sketched in - which is a pity. With a gold mine such as Eleanor for its heroine, ``The Courts of Love'' could have been riveting.

M. Melissa Pressley is a free-lance book reviewer.

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