Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith

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From the author of A Rose for the Crown and Daughter of York comes another engrossing historical novel of the York family in the Wars of the Roses, telling the fascinating story of the rise and fall of the final and favourite mistress of Edward IV.

Jane Lambert, the quick-witted and alluring daughter of a silk merchant, is twenty-two and still unmarried. When Jane’s father finally finds her a match, she’s married off to the dull, older silk merchant William Shore—but her heart belongs to another. Marriage doesn’t stop Jane Shore from flirtation, however, and when the king’s chamberlain and friend, Will Hastings, comes to her husband’s shop, Will knows his King will find her irresistible.

Edward IV has everything: power, majestic bearing, superior military leadership, a sensual nature, and charisma. And with Jane as his mistress, he also finds true happiness. But when his hedonistic tendencies get in the way of being the strong leader England needs, his life, as well as that of Jane Shore and Will Hastings, hang in the balance.

This dramatic tale has been an inspiration to poets and playwrights for 500 years, and told through the unique perspective of a woman plucked from obscurity and thrust into a life of notoriety, Royal Mistress is sure to enthrall today’s historical fiction lovers as well.

Rating: C+

Despite the fact that few details of the private life of Jane Shore are actually known, she has nonetheless been the subject of a number of plays and historical novels, including The Goldsmith’s Wife by Jean Plaidy, and now this, the latest novel from Anne Easter Smith.

Born Elizabeth Lambert, Jane was born into a reasonably well-to-do merchant’s family, and was married to William Shore, who was – like her father – a mercer by trade (and not a goldsmith as had been believed until fairly recently). She is reputed to have been very beautiful and both her father and her husband were not above exploiting this fact in order to gain custom; she was also intelligent, witty and well-mannered, her daily life in the running of her father’s business having brought her regularly into contact with well-born ladies whose behaviour and deportment she was able to observe.

Royal Mistress tells Jane’s story from just before the time of her marriage until almost the end of her life, taking as its final event, the true story of a chance meeting between Jane – now in her sixties – and Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII.

Jane is an attractive character and her story is told in a very straightforward manner. She is vivacious, generous and down-to-earth and does not take the decision to become King Edward IV’s mistress at all lightly. During her time with him, Jane earned herself the name of The Rose of London for her kindness and generosity towards those who asked for her help and the fact that she never forgot her origins or used her status as the King’s mistress to enrich herself or to ride roughshod over the people of her own class.

If there was one thing about this fictionalised version of Jane that didn’t ring true however, it was her nine-year infatuation with Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest son from her first marriage, Tom Grey, Marquis of Dorset. The author has him and Jane literally bumping into each other in the street at the beginning of the book; having then arranged a secret assignation in order to seduce Jane, Tom realises she is expecting declarations of love and a proposal – and he confesses that he is already married. They see each other only a very few times over the course of the book and yet Jane – even when she is happily sharing Edward’s bed – is still fixated on Tom. It’s true that Jane did become Tom Grey’s mistress after Edward’s death; and although I imagine the torch Jane carries for Grey is the author’s invention, I did find that Jane’s constant hankering for him became annoying very quickly.

Jane’s relationship with Edward seems to have been one of mutual affection. She appears to have conducted herself modestly and gained the respect of much of the court for her common sense, wit and good manners. But although Jane has always known her position to be a somewhat precarious one, it is only when Edward becomes ill suddenly and dies – aged only forty – that she realises just how precarious it is. For me, this was when the book really started to come to life as Jane’s life is turned upside down and she becomes unwittingly involved in a Woodville plot to wrest the Protectorate from Edward’s brother Richard.

It was at this point – around half-way through the book – that I thought things moved up a gear and I began to feel a greater engagement with the story than I had up until then. The pacing picks up as Jane is swept up in events she does not fully understand, and I thought the scenes in which she and Hastings say farewell for what will turn out to be the last time, were truly heartfelt.

On a personal level, I was pleased to discover that the narrative is written in the third person omniscient rather than the first person as seems to be the favoured viewpoint for so much of the historical fiction being written today. This means that the author is able to include scenes depicting events of which Jane could have no knowledge without having to resort to too much of the “as you know, Bob”, style of dialogue in having someone later recount to her in order to keep the reader informed. That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen in the book – it does. But it’s not as frequent or intrusive at it might otherwise have been.

I imagine that authors of historical fiction have a difficult line to tread when it comes to deciding on the level of detail to include. Is your audience likely to have a reasonable background knowledge of the period about which you are writing, or do you assume it knows next to nothing? I venture to suggest that if you fall into the latter category, you will find Royal Mistress to be engaging and informative; but if, like me, you are in the former group, you might find it to be somewhat simplistic in tone with a little too much repetition as to who everyone is, what is their position at court, to whom they are related and so on.

That said, I think the book does have plenty to recommend it. I found it enjoyable overall; the story is well-told, Jane is an attractive and sympathetic protagonist and some of the secondary characters – such as William Hastings and Thomas Lyneham – are very nicely drawn indeed. The historical detail has been well-researched, and even when I didn’t completely agree with the author’s interpretation of some of the historical figures (Richard of Gloucester was frequently presented as a po-faced killjoy, for example) I could understand why she had made those decisions.

I’m not sure that Royal Mistress is a book I will re-read in the near future, but I would certainly say that it is worth reading if you are interested in the tumultuous events of the latter part of the fifteenth century and in the lives of the last two Plantagenet monarchs. Ultimately, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on how much you already know about the period and how annoyed you get when being repeatedly told things you already know.

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