Wednesday, 6 April 2011

With a Sword in my Hand by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Biers
 Set in the 14th century, this is the exciting and romantic adventure tale that describes the life of Marguerite van Male, a young Flemish countess who is the only child of a man who wants a son. Told through Marguerite’s own perspective, we hear about her childhood in the castle of Flanders where she lives, her dealings with men and boys and her various rebellious deviations from the path that her father had chosen for her. Marguerite begins the tale by recounting the story of her own birth. We next hear of her mother’s insanitation and of how she is sent to stay with monks. Afterwards, Marguerite begins to grow up. She takes it upon herself to secretly learn swordplay and horseback-riding, skills that only boys were allowed to learn.  She also runs around with the young squires of the castle, and teases her governess constantly. Then, when she is fourteen, her father chose to marry her off to an English prince, Edmund. Marguerite desperately tries to put an end to the marriage, eventually succeeding. The pestilence is brought to Flanders and death and disease is suddenly everywhere. Marguerite eventually marries Philip, a rich young Frenchman. They live in his own castle until he dies, prompting Marguerite to leave her life as she knew it for a life in a convent. Right at the end, her father tries to steal her away from the convent again and engages her in a sword fight. It is during this fight that he finally shows a good nature.
Marguerite Van Male is a strong character, based loosely on a real woman of the same name. She has great qualities, like determination, courage and pride. She doesn’t let anyone push her around, regardless of age or gender, unless she has something to benefit from it. She always has her own best interests at heart. She has a bad relationship with her father, full of hatred, and has a stronger father-bond with the man that teaches her swordplay, a cynical Italian. She loves her governess as a mother figure, despite her teasing. She despises Edmund and likes Philip. She gives her affection to those who are good to her and dislikes anyone who treats her unkindly.
The antagonist in this story is Marguerite’s father, the Count of Flanders. He tries constantly to put an end to her fiery spirit and bull-headed ways with threats. He craves a son and resents Marguerite for being his only child, calling her a cruel joke and saying that she is “the gods laughing at me”. You feel very badly about him, right until the end, when he finally shows some good qualities.
The authors of this book use a very simple format. It is perfectly chronological, with a first person point of view (Marguerite) and conservative language. There isn’t any Elizabethan language, such as “thy” or “doth” but simply an older way of putting words together, using “I am” instead of “I’m” and not contracting many words at all. They’ve played with the genres of adventure, historical and romance, blending them together very well. They focus on themes of strength and determination, leaving us with the message that we can only get what we truly want if we are willing to fight and fight hard for it. We are also told that friendship can only happen if both friends are going to keep it up. There is only one real climax in this book- the fight at the end of book between Marguerite and her father. However, this did not make reading it very dull, because I was always eager to learn of what would happen to Marguerite in her next small adventure.

This book was enjoyable and a quick, easy read. It was perfectly understandable and contained great content. I thought it was an excellent example of medieval feminism, a theme which I enjoyed immensely. With its happy yet realistic ending, I was thoroughly satisfied. I’d recommend this to anyone older than twelve years of age as a brief time-filling read.
My rating- 3.5/5

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