This is a book with a deeply split personality, almost as if two different Betty Davidsons had a hand in it. The first 100 pages are strongly plotted, commandingly written and full of the historical color that makes a book come alive. Then, in a welter of unexplained character reversals, foggy motivations and dumb heroine tricks, the story goes off track in a muddle and never fully recovers its early power and momentum.
David D’Aubere, Earl of Lynchburg, has a title, a fierce reputation as a warrior and little else. He hopes that his faithful service to Henry VI will be rewarded with the land he desperately needs.
Unfortunately, Queen Margaret, rather than giving him property or money outright, provides him with an heiress to marry - Jeanette, only surviving child of the widowed Earl of Cornwich - and insists on an immediate marriage by proxy. Dismayed, Lynchburg resolves to go to his new wife and get her with child right away to cement this tenuous claim on the Cornwich holdings.
Arriving at Cornwich’s estate, he narrowly escapes assassination by Lady Riley Snowden. The Yorkist Snowdens have been almost wiped out by the Lancastrian Cornwiches and Riley has sworn vengeance. Lynchburg throws Riley in the dungeon, thinking that her York connections might make her a useful hostage later.
Then he meets his bride. Severely damaged at birth, Jeanette is tiny of body and feeble of mind. To Lynchburg’s disgust, Cornwich expects him to impregnate her and produce an heir. If Lynchburg doesn’t, the marriage will be annulled and Lynchburg is out on his ear.
Deciding he must find someone else to secretly bear his child, Lynchburg approaches Riley, tempting her with both her own freedom and the chance to ensure that the estates and title are inherited by someone with Snowden blood. Riley agrees, thinking she can also use Lynchburg to discover Lancastrian secrets and further the York cause.
I’ve just skimmed the surface. It’s an involved, completely believable plot that turns strongly on its own inherent logic and the characters’ needs. Riley is young, high-spirited and impulsive but intelligent, courageous and strongly motivated. Lynchburg is a soldier of uncompromising power, but weary and frustrated. He is also smart, down to earth, and not unkind. It’s a very strong combination.
Then, something goes terribly wrong.
Lynchburg takes Riley to a secluded cottage where he can concentrate on getting her pregnant. There must be weird vapors in the air, though, because, barely inside the door, Riley starts to whine inexplicably about his lack of affection. When he does reach out to her, she suddenly remembers that they’re enemies and rejects him. Left alone, she burns all her clothes in a fit of pique. Yep, that’ll show him. The intelligent Riley has disappeared and will scarcely be heard from again. She has given up her brains and her cause to mope around waiting for Lynchburg to love her.
These vapors infect Lynchburg soon after. He’s not all that sorry to return and find her naked - they’re here for non-stop baby making, after all. Immediately after they make love, however, he staggers out of bed knowing that he must provide her with new clothing right away because undressed she’s too much of a distraction. Neither lust nor love has an improving effect on the intelligence of either of these characters.
And so it goes. They want each other; they hate each other. They’re at each other’s throats; they’re ripping each other’s clothes off. The book’s strengths don’t completely disappear; they’re just painfully diluted by the baffling relationship.
I should also warn those who need it - this is not a sweet story. The author resists the temptation to sugarcoat many harsh realities of the 15th century for modern sensibilities. As a result, the story has a hard, dark edge to it and moments that may make some readers uncomfortable. Me, I liked the uncompromising approach very much. Why write about this era if you’re just going to spray modern political correctness all over it?
So we have a book with profound strengths and profound weaknesses, and I have a question. Will the real Betty Davidson please stand up?