Memoirist Simeti (On Persephone’s Island, 1986, etc.) tells the story of Constance d’Hauteville, whose marriage linked the medieval Norman kingdom of Sicily with the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1186, the 32-year-old Constance, heir to the throne of Sicily, married Henry, rock-ribbed son of the dashing Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and ten years her junior. When her half-brother William II died childless three years later and the succession went to another male relative, Henry, now emperor, determined to enforce Constance’s claim and take Sicily for himself. It took two tries, and in 1194, en route to Sicily the second time, the 40-year-old empress discovered to everyone’s astonishment that she was pregnant. The child she bore became Frederick II, one of the most powerful and controversial figures of the Middle Ages. Part travelogue, part history, Taylor’s narrative moves between Constance's final journey and her own trip 800 years later along the same (reconstructed) route. Simeti, an American who has lived in Sicily for many years, offers lively descriptions of important Italian sites and buildings, illuminating background on medieval people and practices, and some reflections on the continuities and discontinuities over time of various human experiences: travel, selfhood, childbirth, and, naturally, expatriation. Articulate and well-grounded in medieval studies, the author is a self-styled “incautious amateur,” filling gaps in the record with imaginative conjecture. Unfortunately, Simeti also invests her informed, intelligent reconstructions with the trappings of self-indulgent fantasy; she needlessly invents names for unattested figures, dramatizes undocumented relationships, and smugly apologizes for doing so at every opportunity. Even worse, Simeti uses Constance’s 1194 itinerary as an organizing principle for a story that begins more than 30 years earlier. (A chronology is provided—too late—at the end.) For the general reader unfamiliar with the major events of the late-12th century, this episodic approach would be confusing in any case; combined with Simeti's modern-day anecdotes and detours, it verges on incoherence.
An engrossing story, sadly contorted in the telling.