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The Maiden's Heart by Julie Beard
(Jove, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12515-6
***
I really wanted to recommend The Maiden's Heart if for no other reason than the story premise is a bit unusual. How many romances are there were the heroine insists on a "spiritual" marriage? Moreover, Beard has clearly done some research about the Middle Ages. But what keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending that fans of medieval romances read this book centers on the fact that, while the premise is very medieval, the characters and the tone of the book seems strangely contemporary.

The story centers on the marriage of Sir Hugh de Grayhurst and Lady Margrete Trewsbury. Sir Hugh is one of those unhappy second sons who, deprived by primogeniture (and a tyrannical father) of any hope of inheriting property, has earned his livelihood on the tournament circuit. But Sir Hugh is now thirty and, although he can still hold his own in the joust, he is tired of the life. He informs his cronies that he wants to marry and settle down. But who will have a landless knight for a husband?

It just so happens that in the very neighborhood where he makes his declaration, there is a woman in need of a husband. Margrete Trewsbury is twenty-five but she has avoided marriage because she dreams of becoming a nun. However, she was forced to leave the convent because her father needed her to run his barony. Lord Giles had been injured many years ago and has not been quite right ever since the raid that led to his wife's rape and murder. Margrete has struggled to hold the barony together, but the once prosperous Longrove has fallen on hard times. Now Lord Giles wants his daughter to marry because he fears he has not long to live. And news of his wishes have become public knowledge.

Sir Hugh immediately sends his squire to propose a match and Lord Giles agrees. Hugh's friends tease him that the woman must be as ugly as sin to have remained unwed so long. Instead, Hugh finds the loveliest woman he has ever seen. When Margrete informs Hugh of the kind of marriage she wants, he at first refuses. But the land and the lady are too tempting and so they wed.

Thereafter, part of the story has to do with the growing affection between the two, part with the problems of their developing a working relationship now that Hugh is in charge, and part with the dangers posed by Hugh's old enemy who is in cahoots with the bishop and wants both the lady and her land (as well as the rumored treasure that resides within Longrove's walls.)

Hugh, as a hero, is the answer to a maiden's prayers. He is honorable, able and caring. He comes to love his wife, but will not force himself on her nor will he take advantage of her momentary weakness. Margrete is a woman who has good reason to avoid the marriage bed over and above her belief that virginity is a holier state.

As I said before, an interesting premise.

Why then am I not more enthusiastic about the book? Some of my reasons are sui generis. As I noted, Beard did some research, but not enough. Her understanding of feudal tenures, vassalage, the 14th century legal system, and the social stucture is incomplete. But I do recognize that most readers will not find these elements as jarring as I did.

Beyond these problems is the fact that I did not feel that I was reading about real medieval people in a real medieval setting. Rather, the characters seemed more like stock characters and the setting seemed hazy. Again, this may well reflect my own preferences when reading medieval (or any historical) romance.

So, while I recognize the undoubted good points of The Maiden's Heart, including its unusual plot and its attractive hero, the book does not have that special something that lifts it above the ordinary. An acceptable medieval romance, but not an outstanding one.

--Jean Mason


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