The story takes place in heaven ("Up") in the late twentieth century. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Matilda, and William the Marshall are waiting for King Henry II to be admitted to heaven at last. The Abbot Suger stops to chat with Eleanor and stays to wait, too. To pass the time, the four recall Eleanor's time on Earth.
The flashbacks on earth are set during the Middle Ages in France and England, with a brief trip to the Holy Land. The flashbacks trace the highlights of Eleanor's life from 1137—when she is fifteen years old and about to wed Louis Capet, soon to be King Louis VII of France—to her death in 1204. Her life encompasses the rule of England by her husband Henry II and by her sons Richard and John.
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The device of placing characters in heaven allows Konigsburg to focus on Eleanor's personality and experiences without getting bogged down in all the details. This anachronistic approach—that is, taking the characters out of the time in which they lived—has been the focus of the critical response to A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, critics think it is either clever or too clever. Beyond the narrative frame, Konigsburg's treatment of the four narrators deserves praise. Each speaks of a period in Eleanor's life unknown to the others, except Eleanor herself. Each narrator's unique style suits the personality revealed in the narration.
Konigsburg's illustrations are in medieval style. Most recall the illuminations, or ornamental designs and miniature drawings, of medieval manuscripts. One, showing Thomas Becket's envoy to the king of France, offers insight into the details of medieval life, much like the famous Bayeux tapestry from the eleventh century. The pen-and-ink drawings add flavor to the historical backdrop, depicting such specific activities and events as a tournament, a town receiving its charter, a royal wedding, and a crossing of the English Channel.
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The concept of an afterlife may cause some controversy, but Konigsburg uses it as a literary device, not as a means of advancing a particular point of view about religion. In the framework of A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, one is admitted to heaven ("Up") after spending time "Below" to remedy any character flaws remaining at one's death. Eleanor had not learned patience, and "she had done things on Earth for which there had been some Hell to pay."
Konigsburg jokes gently about admission to heaven and activities there. Lawyers and bank presidents are scarce; anyone in government will need some time in hell first. Heavenly inhabitants are requested not to race around or to drum their fingers on the clouds, because "Angels don't appreciate having to answer hundreds of requests for better television reception." This light-hearted approach characterizes the presentation of any theological assumptions.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How much influence on the general populace does a ruler's style have? Eleanor believed that a ruler's duty included providing a touch of glamor in the lives of the common people. King Louis disagreed. Compare the styles of some U.S. presidents, such as the luxurious elegance of John Kennedy, the "plain folks" approach of Jimmy Carter, the Hollywood touch of Ronald Reagan.
2. Eleanor believed that festivals such as coronations, inaugurations, and world fairs are important for a sense of community: "There is nothing like a lavish display to give people pride in their country." Can we see this same principle working in smaller units, school homecomings or family celebrations, for instance?
3. Historically, the most important function of a queen was to produce an heir to the throne. What other functions does Eleanor find? Why can Henry gladly accept her help while Louis cannot?
4. One of King Henry's accomplishments was his effort to ensure that people would have equal legal treatment. The American judicial system is based on English common law. Despite the legal assurances of equality under the law, are there instances when justice does not seem to be applied equally?
5. Eleanor and Marie invent the Courtly Love games to occupy restless teenagers and to teach them about acceptable manners and attitudes. What kinds of activities serve that purpose for teenagers today?
6. For more information on some aspects...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Who were the troubadours, and what did they do?
2. While Eleanor knew it would be difficult to make people take pride in King John, she could grant charters that would make towns take pride in their own government. The English forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. What did that document mean to English government?
3. Eleanor concedes that Blanche of Castile, wife of Louis VI of France, was a bad mother-in-law but a good queen. What happened during her reign?
4. Falconry was a favorite sport of King Henry II. Eleanor and Thomas Becket enjoyed it, too. How is the sport practiced today?
5. What were the benefits, both spiritual and materialistic, that men hoped to accrue from going on one of the Crusades to the Holy Land?
6. Many of Eleanor's interests—tapestries, rugs, pillows, incense—stemmed from a desire for comfort. What was it like to live in a castle in medieval England?
7. Eleanor promoted a consistent system of measurement for England. On what was that system based? How does the American system differ from the British?
8. The Vexin changed hands several times during Eleanor's life. Explain the importance of this triangle of land and trace its history.
9. Write a resume for Eleanor of Aquitaine.
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For Further Reference
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1974. The article on Konigsburg includes her own account of the background of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
De Montreville, Doris, and Donna Hill, eds. Third Book of Junior Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1972. Includes Konigsburg's own account of her schooling and teaching and her move toward writing.
Konigsburg, E. L. Forty Percent More Than Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about E. L. Konigsburg. New York: Atheneum, 1984. A promotional pamphlet in which Konigsburg interviews herself, with emphasis on From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
The Genesis of "A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver". New York: Atheneum, 1973. This promotional pamphlet, which tells how the book was written, can be obtained from the publisher.
Metzger, Linda, and Deborah A. Straub, eds. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. The article on Konigsburg summarizes the critical response to several books, including A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Features a substantial interview with Konigsburg on being a writer.
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