The Burning Candle is about a little-known medieval noblewoman of royal blood, one Isabel de Vermandois, niece of a king of France. The book starts off promisingly, in the sample, with a very young Isabel being forced into marriage with a much older man. Robert de Beaumont, comte de Meulan, is a hero of Hastings (then called Senlac), a trusted councillor of the Norman kings of England and duke of Normandy. But he is nearly forty years older than her, and she is just eleven. The first third of the book concerns her early years of marriage, when she is left alone to grow up in her husband's castles, then finally meets her husband again at the age of sixteen. The next third of the book recounts her married life with Meulan, now also Earl of Leicester. Unfortunately, her childish dreams of finding happiness are shattered, as Meulan cares only for sons and more puzzlingly, a clerkly companion since childhood. In the final third of the book, Isabel finds happiness in an unlikely way, in what was probably one of the biggest scandals in Henry I's court.
I liked the first third of the book immensely, although I felt that the book could have showed a bit more of the life of a Norman lady, rather than Isabel's relationship with an old nurse and a young lord. However, the book lost steam after that, with the dialogue given to both Isabel and Robert seeming to be a little too modern.
Isabel also seems curiously naive for a woman born into and related to the greatest noble families in France. I wanted to also know more about her reactions to events in the early years of Henry's reign. She seemed remarkably ill-informed and unconcerned. Her husband, one of the greatest Anglo-Norman magnates of his day, was portrayed increasingly unidimensionally, with a stock device employed towards the end to make him more villainous and Isabel more sympathetic. Although this is an interesting and mostly well-written book, I still feel that the characters haven't been done justice. Isabel's coldness to her children is partly explained, but she comes across as a bit of a cardboard figure. I think the huge age difference played a big part in the breakdown of her marriage, as well as Meulan's preoccupation with Anglo-Norman politics. For the price, this is a decent book, but not one I'll want to re-read.