Always being a sucker for a good romance, and despite being disappointed more often than not lately, I still dip into one now and then for distraction. One author that I've managed to keep on enjoying is Virginia Henley. She manages to write historical romances that are somewhat bawdy, but very rarely boring, and does work on creating characters that are at least, never milk-and-water ninnies.
After a very brief introduction, where we are introduced to Marjory de Warenne, who is mourning her mistakes of the past as she watches her brother being married, the reader is left wondering, how in the world did she get into this mess?
The story actually begins with Jory's life as a lady-in-waiting to King Edward's very willful daughter, Joanna. Joanna is about to be married to the Earl of Gloucester, a much older man, and it is this match that Joanna is dreading -- and reacting by seducing any young man that takes her fancy. Jory isn't nearly as bold as the princess however, but as it is more than likely that her fate will be the same as Joanna, she decides that perhaps a little flirtation might be in order.
Her choice is the black-haired, and rumored to be black-hearted as well, Guy de Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick. Feared as a fighter, and (of course) darkly handsome to boot, he's much older than Jory. While it's certainly instant lust between the silvery-haired Jory and Guy, he also is a very honorable man, especially when he discovers in mid-seduction that Jory is not just well born, but also a virgin. Fortunately, he's also a widower, so he approaches her brother Lynx, and her uncle to propose that a marriage be made between he and Jory. Simple, no?
Not quite. Her family is horrified by Warwick's evil reputation, and hastily arrange another match for her, with a young nobleman who's nearly her own age, and far more suitable. Jory, hurt and angry that Warwick has appeared to go back on his word, tries to make her marriage work with Humphrey de Bohun, but when he is killed in the never ceasing wars with the Welsh, Jory is left widowed and alone.
Deciding that it might be better to return to her family, Jory goes to her brother, fighting skirmishes in the borders between Scotland and England, and soon finds herself involved with Robert the Bruce, a would-be king of the Scots. It's certainly a passionate affair, but Jory also knows that he will never marry her. And there is also Warwick, still honorable and unwed. Who Jory eventually ends up with is the main focus of the story, along with sacrifice and honor, and some fairly good romancing and detail to go along with it.
I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. Virginia Henley is more known for the spiciness and eroticism of her novels, and more often than not, her stories aren't based around historical figures. This time, however, a bit of digging through a few history books of thirteenth century England revealed that there was indeed a Guy de Beauchamp who was Earl of Warwick, whose actions in the book closely mirror that of the actual person; and that King Edward I of England did indeed have a daughter named Joan who made a second marriage in some haste and secrecy.
It's this particular touch of blending history and fantasy that I like about Henley's work. She never makes it boring to read, nor does she slip into dry reading, but manages to make the backgrounds and back stories of her characters work. While there is certainly plenty of the usual trappings of a historical romance here -- fine clothing, feasts, plenty of wooing and sex -- she stays true to the period, where it was very much a man's world, and a woman had to use her own wits and cunning to survive. While some of the lovemaking passages get rather silly in spots, the author doesn't slowly rely on them to keep the novel moving, but instead shows the personalities of her various characters. Guy is a honorable man, but capable of doing what he must to get his way; Jory is clearly a schemer at the start of the novel, but does grow up, and there's even hope for Joanna, who settles down once she realizes that marriage isn't that bad after all.
There are a few historical slips here and there, mostly with ignoring Edward I's second marriage to a French princess, and a lack of giving any sort of time base for the story -- years do pass in the novel, but I had an uncertain feeling of just how much and exactly what was going on. Still, it's a very good novel for a romance, and worth reading. The writing style is crisp and clear, the silliness is kept to a minimum, and the author manages to keep her characters not just believable, but also likeable.
If you want to know more about the real Edward I of England and his wars with the Scots, I suggest Michael Prestwich's biography, Edward I.