Katy Cooper makes use of a little known and not well understood aspect
of marriage before the late sixteenth century. According to church law,
a couple needed no ceremony or license to marry. All they needed to do
was say the words, ďI take you for my husband/wife.Ē This, plus
consummation, was all that was required for a valid marriage. Moreover,
a promise or vow to marry de futuro was equally binding.
Once a couple had made such a promise, they could not validly marry
anyone else, unless of course they got an annulment from the church.
Once, when they were young and foolish and in love, Lord Sebastian
Benbury and Lady Beatrice Coleville had made such a vow, promising to
marry as soon as they could. Beatriceís brother John had witnessed the
vow. Then John had taken himself off to Italy and things had gone
wrong. Lord Sebastian discovered that his father had wasted the family
fortune. Believing that he did not have enough to offer the daughter of
a powerful earl, Sebastian had withdrawn from Beatrice. The beauteous
young girl, ignorant of his reasons, had accepted another man, the older
and rich Lord Charles Manners. Sebastian let her go.
Five years have passed and Beatrice is recently widowed. John returns
from his travels to discover what has happened. He reminds Sebastian
and Beatrice of their binding promise. Not only was Beatriceís marriage
invalid, but neither can marry again unless this mess is untangled.
This is no hardship for Beatrice; her marriage was a disaster and she
has no desire to wed. But Sebastian has recovered some of his property
and is planning to marry Beatriceís sister. Instead, he finds that he
already has a wife.
Beatriceís acceptance of Manners suit had hurt Sebastian. Even more
hurtful had been his discovery of Beatrice in the arms of another
courtier, Sir George Conyers. He is convinced that his one time love
and companion has become a wanton woman. For her part, Beatrice
believes that Sebastian despises her. Not a good basis for a happy
marriage, yet whatís done is done. Sebastian can marry no one else, so
arrangements are made to formalize the promise made all those years ago.
The plot of Lord Sebastianís Wife thus centers on overcoming what
is indeed a very big misunderstanding. This may not appeal to many
readers. Likewise, readers who are used to heroes and heroines who
reflect the sensibilities of the contemporary world may not appreciate
Lady Beatrice and Lord Sebastian are clearly sixteenth century
characters. Beatrice has internalized the view that a husband has the
right to chastise his wife and that the wife must simply accept her lot.
She is consumed with guilt about her dalliance with Sir George and
accepts (we would think all too readily) the contempt Sebastian displays
towards her. Her chief consolation is in prayer and confession and
repentance. This is realistic but not necessarily what modern readers
are looking for in a heroine.
Sebastian is likewise a man of his times. He is proud and overbearing
and all too willing to believe the worst of Beatrice. It takes him a
long time (many would suggest too long) to understand what Beatrice has
lived through or to recognize his own role in the misstep she made five
years earlier. Nor, when he realizes the truth, does he grovel nearly
enough for modern sensibilities.
If Beatrice and Sebastian have their problems, one place where they
discover compatibility is in bed. Sebastian may not respect Beatrice,
but he wants her badly. Beatrice is persuaded to accept him into her
bed before the ceremony because he is her husband and she has a duty to
submit. Again, Cooper is reflecting the realities of the time. The
pleasure that the two find together is one of the best parts of the book
and begins the process of breaking the chains of the past.
I agonized a bit over rating Lord Sebastianís Wife. For my part,
I found the story perfectly believable and appreciated how well Cooper
recreated the realities of early sixteenth century society and
especially the prevailing attitudes of and about women. But I likewise
recognize that many readers may well find the heroine too submissive and
the hero too arrogant. Still, Lord Sebastianís Wife should
appeal to those readers who appreciate a romance that truly reflects the
realities of the past.