E.L. Konigsburg

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver

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A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver Summary

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Published in 1973, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver is a historical novel for children and young adults written by the two-time Newbery Medal-winning author, E.L. Konigsburg. The book tells the story of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a wealthy and powerful woman who became the wife of two kings and the mother of two kings. Konigsburg explores Eleanor’s influence on the literature, politics, social mores, and the roles of women during the High Middle Ages. The novel’s title reflects Eleanor’s personal love of “color and luxury.” During her lifetime, members of the royalty wore robes that had been expensively dyed a deep scarlet and trimmed with white fur, or “miniver.” A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver was a finalist in the National Book Award Children’s category in 1974.

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver opens in the late twentieth century. Eleanor is “Up” in Heaven, with her mother-in-law, Matilda-Empress; her protector, William the Marshal; and her old friend Abbot Sugar. Eleanor is impatient to see if her second husband, Henry II, will, at last, be allowed into Heaven. Eleanor herself spent two centuries in Hell atoning for some of the acts she committed during her lifetime. Henry has been in hell for eight centuries, and today, his lawyers are pleading his case to move Up. Eleanor misses life—she thinks, “Heaven is often a pale substitute”—and impatience makes her feel alive again. Konigsburg uses Eleanor’s conversations with her companions in Heaven as a frame story for the rest of the novel during which the others take turns remembering Eleanor’s life history. After each character shares his or her tale, the narrative returns briefly back to Heaven before moving to the next character’s story.

The perspective changes to the first-person narrative of Abbot Suger. The Abbot meets Eleanor in 1137 when she is fifteen years old. Her father, the rich and landed William, Duke of Aquitaine, has arranged for Eleanor to marry Prince Louis, the son of King Louis VI of France. Abbot Suger is Louis’s advisor and confidante, and together they travel to Aquitaine to meet Eleanor. Eleanor impresses Suger with her scarlet dress and gray eyes and fine features. He observes in Eleanor a “beauty that is bred as much as it is born.” Prince Louis admires Eleanor’s intelligence and style. Prince Louis’s father dies soon after he and Eleanor are married, making Louis and Eleanor the King and Queen of France. Adelaide, Louis’s mother, dislikes Eleanor for her lavish spending and for pushing Adelaide out of her castle. She believes that Eleanor “knows nothing of kindness,” but Abbot Suger replies that Eleanor really “knows nothing of fair play,” and that she will grow and learn. Eleanor grows bored and accompanies Louis to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade. Her relationship with Louis deteriorates. Feeling that Louis has grown monastic and dull, she divorces him in 1152.

After a brief interlude in Heaven, Matilda-Empress takes up the story. Matilda-Empress is the mother of Henry of Anjou. When Henry accompanies his father to the French court, he catches Eleanor’s eye. Appreciating his spunk, the two get married just two months after Eleanor leaves Louis. At the time, Eleanor is thirty-years-old, and Henry is eighteen. Matilda-Empress admits that she and Eleanor have “no great love for each other,” but she respects Eleanor’s “efficiency and her willingness to learn.” Henry becomes King of England in 1154, and Eleanor becomes queen. Eleanor and Henry are well-suited to each other: both are restless and decisive and passionate. During their marriage, Eleanor has eight children, including two who become kings: Richard the Lionheart and John. After John’s birth, Eleanor returns to Aquitaine.

The “true and loyal knight,” William the Marshal, continues Eleanor’s story. He knows that Eleanor returns to Aquitaine because Henry wants to quiet some rebellions there, and because Eleanor knows Henry is consorting with another woman, Rosamond Clifford. William defends Eleanor from an attack, and she ransoms him, elevating him to knight-at-arms for the royal children. To keep her rowdy court and children well-behaved, Eleanor and her daughter she had with Louis, Marie of Champagne, invent a game called Courts of Love. They establish rules of decorum and enforce courtly behavior towards women. William helps keep the young men busy with tournaments. Richard and young Henry jealously feud with each other, vying for their father’s lands. Eleanor feeds her sons’ rebellion against Henry. Henry arrests her for treason and has her imprisoned in Salisbury, England. Eleanor remains under house arrest for fifteen years, until Henry’s death in 1189. During this time, she has her poets and writers embellish Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the King Arthur stories, making them more exciting, romantic, and popular.

Eleanor finishes her own story. She is sixty-seven years old when she is released from prison and declares that her “real life” began then. She has grown in understanding. She travels throughout England, creating a system for uniform weights and measures, standardizing coinage, and dispensing justice. She sees that there is a rising middle class, and she grants charters to towns, making them responsible for their own government and own defense. Eleanor is Regent of England while Richard is in the Holy Lands on crusade. When Richard dies and John becomes king, she returns to Aquitaine. Eleanor dies in 1204. She comments that she has relished both the good and bad parts of her life and died knowing that she “had drunk fully of both flavors.”

Back in Heaven, Eleanor sees that Henry II has been granted permission to come Up. He is accompanied by Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. Henry is confused about how a commoner like Churchill could govern England and has no idea what an American is. The others float away, and Eleanor takes Henry aside to catch up on the last 800 years of history he has missed.