CHARLES is an historical novel based on the life of King Charles VI of France (late 14th Century) who was intermittently insane and kept in a tiny cell in his own palace while his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, carried on an affair with his own brother, Louis d’Orleans.
Charles is faced with the Hundred Years War, the Great Schism between the Popes at Rome and Avignon, rebellion by the poor of France, and the return of the Black Plague. Were he not already mad, all this would doubtlessly be enough to drive him to madness. Because he cannot know when his lapses into insanity will occur, even his lucid periods are uneasy.
Isabeau cannot be rectified in her adultery, but she can be understood. She has married a prince who (in her mind) has turned into a toad. She wants “the good life” again, even on these terms. She becomes one of the most hated women in Europe and in her declining years, she reaps, what some would say, is deserved. Her children are as alienated from her now (in her time of need) as she was from them in her youth when power plays and illicit love were her only concerns. Only in her own desolation does she entirely grasp the condition of Charles years before. In her imagination, she is intermittenly joined with him
Louis d’Orleans is a brilliant young man who would have been king (had he been the elder brother). He is anguished over the condition of his elder brother, but also wants some compensation in life. Later he will be riddled with guilt and leave Isabeau. Now he will do severe penance, being flogged by the Celestine monks regularly and will wear a monk’s Camal, even as he temporarily acts as Regent for his brother.
This is a powerful story examining the complex inner lives of each of its many characters as well as the historical events in which they are enmeshed. It is about court intrigue and the horrors of war and plague, but also embraces a beautiful love story between Isabeau and Charles, renewed in later life, shortly before his death. It is seasoned richly with medieval customs and thought and, though a novel, draws largely on the facts (some of which are astonishing).