Isabel and Jane are sisters of very different types. Beautiful Jane is indolent, idle and flirtatious, and holds her widowed father, an esteemed silk merchant, in the palm of her hand. Isabel is serious, independent and hardworking, always at odds with her father and hopeful of the future to come. But when her father loses standing in the eyes of the local guild, he decides to marry off both girls to prosperous families in order to raise public opinion of himself and his business. This means that Jane will wed a man who doesn’t love her and who is reproachful of everything she does, while Isabel will marry into the house of Claver, a virtuous and noble family of silk workers. Though neither of the girls love their husbands, Isabel begins to feel a sort of affection toward the young man she marries and is devastated when he’s killed while defending the city from an attack to overthrow King Edward. When Isabel decides to apprentice herself to her mother-in-law for ten years to avoid the scandal her husband left behind and Jane annuls her marriage to become the mistress of the King, the sisters are set apart. But as Isabel works away her ten years, she falls in love with a mysterious and unavailable man and must be satisfied with the random trysts that he and she agree to. When she discovers that her lover is actually the Duke of Gloucester, brother of the king and possible usurper of the throne, the danger she uncovers is almost too much for her to handle. Are the rumors of her beloved Richard really true? This tale of the War of the Roses as seen through the traitorous eyes of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and his humble and naive lover is full to the brim with cunning, treachery, and a very unlikely romance between a virtuous woman and a man who remains one of the most notorious characters in all of history.
When I discovered this book would be our book club choice for the month of February, I was rather excited because not only am I an avid lover of historical fiction, but I knew I would soon be touring another book by Vanora Bennett, called The Queen’s Lover, and I thought this would be an excellent way for me to get a sample of what was to come. It wasn’t until about a third of the way through that I realized the book’s topic was the War of the Roses, and when I discovered that I would soon be neck deep in this particular story again, I was rather pleased because, though there are many books out there on this subject, I always relish the opportunity to see the story portrayed from another viewpoint.
I have to say this book and I didn’t get off to a great start together. I’m not sure if was because the first sections were mostly about scene setting and character introduction, but for the first hundred pages or so, I found myself getting easily distracted and almost bored. For some reason, the characters lacked the piquancy that I relish in most of the historical fiction I read, and I found that both girls, especially Isabel, were just too bland for me to get invested in. I also had a problem with the descriptions of the silk work. Often, I find that fiction which delves deeply into some kind of craft is wonderful in a way I can’t describe, because it elucidates and also captures my interest in its minute details. This was not the case here, because although I felt that Bennett really knew her stuff in regards to silk work, she was unable to translate the excitement and flavor of the craft to her readers. I have to admit that I glossed over a lot of these sections because they just didn’t interest me. I was beginning to think this book would be a total loss, until I got to the second section and things began to pick up dramatically.
Due to the activism of the local community of silk workers, the widowed Isabel and others like her have a degree of independence and autonomy that is almost unheard of during this point in history. It’s mentioned several times in the text that women like Isabel’s mother-in-law petitioned and argued for the rights of these women to run their own businesses and to be free from the impingement of men that may have held them back. In essence, this is the reason Isabel was able to make a name and a fortune for herself through her silk work, and the reason that her petition to the king for the silk workers to begin making their own exotic silks was granted. The secret operation of building up this business had to be kept very quiet in order for the foreign contingent of importers in England not to be angered. As Isabel begins her secret work, she once again finds herself at odds due to her very loose relationship with a man she presumes to be a soldier, but who is a very different animal altogether.
The relationship between Isabel and the man she knows as Dickon is one that’s inflamed by passion and separated by formalities. Dickon is Isabel’s reason for hope and her lover for a very long period of time. When she discovers his true identity and hears the rumors associated with him, her life shatters into shards of self deception and mistrust. Her relationship with Dickon and likewise her sister’s with the king puts the two of them in a hotbed of danger and uncertainty, and though Isabel goes to great lengths to deceive herself of Dickon’s true nature, the proof of his madness and treachery increases on a scale that can’t be denied. When he begins to enlist Isabel’s help in his dangerous plans and uses her confidences to thwart those who oppose him, Isabel is angered and heartbroken. In reality, Isabel is used by both sides in this battle, and though she doesn’t know it, her first and final betrayal of Dickon will be the loose end that completely unravels him.
Though I didn’t really enjoy the beginning, and the conclusion left me a bit tepid, the majority of the story was entrancing to say the least. To see the War of The Roses from the point of view of the villain was more than intriguing to me, and the fact that Dickon could fool not only the clever Isabel, but this reader, who already knew the outcome of this story, was an achievement in itself. If historical fiction is a genre you appreciate, I would recommend this book to you, though perhaps like me, it might take awhile for the story to really ramp up for you.