Cecelia Holland is a well-known writer of historical fiction, whose novels often features male protagonists. Great Maria is one of the few with a female lead character—and what a character she is.
The novel takes place in a fictionalized Sicily (the island off the “toe” of present-day Italy) in the 1000’s, during the time the Normans (of French heritage) were fighting the Saracens (Muslims) for dominance. I believe the place names Holland includes are made up, since I could not find them on any map of that region and era. It is therefore somewhat difficult to picture where the action takes place, although Holland’s descriptions are helpful. This article includes helpful background about medieval Sicily.
Maria is the only child of Robert Strongarm, a Norman baron. She has been managing her father’s household very competently since she was a young teen. She is convinced by her father to marry Richard, one of his knights. Richard and Maria have a stormy love-hate relationship. Although Richard comes to appreciate her management skills and hard work, he also wants her to be more compliant to his commands. Maria, however, has a mind of her own and puts it to use.
The story follows many years of Maria’s life in chronological order from the time she is 14. In the first chapter, Richard states as his reason for marrying Maria: “This castle’s at the throat of the whole region. . . . Someone is going to make himself great here, why should it not be me?” The overall plot is about Richard’s conquests, but that is in the background—the focus is on developing Maria as a character. The action really picks up when Richard assigns Maria, along with a small band of aged knights, to defend his newly acquired castle in Birnia while he and his brothers try to overthrow the Saracens in a different region.
Maria is a many-faceted woman and a strategic leader. She is a devout Catholic who uses plunder given to her by Richard to construct a chapel. She has a tender heart: she is actively involved in caring for her children, and does her best to help the peasants. Yet she feels no pity for those who are disloyal. She spies on her husband when she believes he is not being forthcoming with her. She takes counsel from her advisers but makes up her own mind. She bluffs her way out of dangerous situations.
Holland uses short, dense sentences which often combine setting, characterization, and action. This is how the novel begins:
Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue’s face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say. She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, and for her father’s good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks.
In addition to Maria, the other main and secondary characters are also well-developed and vivid. I grew to care about the fate of those whom Maria cared about, and to dislike those whom Maria disliked.
I do wish Holland had included more of Maria’s inner thoughts. It was sometimes difficult to know how Maria felt about the tumultuous incidents around her, and sometimes I didn’t understand why she was taking certain actions. Yet perhaps this was by design: Maria likes to act, and is not terribly introspective. She is an unusual, memorable character.