If ever there were a book in need of a good editor, it is Jane Howard’s new historical, For My Lady’s Heart. Let me begin by admitting that I have read the book in galleys. It is possible that between this stage and the final book, significant changes were made. Perhaps the days of effective editors who shape and improve a story has passed. Which is a shame, because there is the kernel of a very entertaining romance here.
Howard sets her story in England in 1542, an interesting if somewhat neglected setting for historical romance. These were unusual and dangerous times as an aging king presided over a country that was wracked by religious dissension, growing poverty, social unrest, and personal insecurity. It was an era when an ambitious and able man could
hope to make his fortune. Howard’s hero, Baldwin Beaumarais is such a man.
Abandoned as a child, Beau was raised by the Grai Friars until he took to the streets to make his way. Found by his natural father, he achieved an education as a poor scholar and has built a substantial fortune from the small inheritance he received. He owns a small manor, a fine trading ship, and a popular London inn, the Sign of the Kat. The
inn is managed by his best friend, Katesby Dalton. Like Beau, Kat was given over to the care of the friars as a young child; like Beau, she made her way through the underworld. Now, at eighteen, she is a most successful innkeeper.
When Beau returns from one of his trading voyages, he is as always delighted to see Kat. Then, she makes a most unexpected request of her friend. She has caught the attention of a great lord, Harry de Morely. But Harry, the king’s contemporary, wants a wife with experience. Kat asks Beau to introduce her to the joys of passion. With a certain
degree of reluctance, Beau agrees.
Of course, Kat really loves Beau. But he does not believe in love. He believes that marriage is a business deal and love just confuses the issue. If he feels a certain reluctance at the idea of his best friend marrying an earl, he refuses to closely examine his own motives and feelings.
Before Beau and Kat finally reach their inevitable fate (since the book begins with a Prologue in which the now married Kat and Beau are having their first child, this information is not a spoiler), there are a myriad of adventures. It turns out that Beau has an alter ego, Win Chance, a kind of a Robin Hood who rescues those wrongly condemned to death (there were lots during Henry VIII’s reign) from the gallows. The
attempts of the authorities to capture the elusive outlaw play a part in the story.
The major problem with For My Lady’s Heart is that there is too much of everything: too much plot, too much action, too many characters, and -- believe it or not -- too much history. Howard has clearly done a prodigious amount of research about Tudor England. And she has seemingly tried to shoehorn every bit of information she has discovered into her book. Thus we have a disquisition on the capital crimes of England,
recipes for early 16th century cookery, discussions of accounting methods and numerology, information on alchemy, examples of medical treatment, descriptions of foreign relations, etc,. etc., and so forth.
Now, anyone who reads my reviews knows that I am not an advocate of the all too common current practice of merely using history as “wallpaper” in our novels. I enjoy stories that interweave historical events into the plot and appreciate an author who creates a sense of verisimilitude in her books. But the historical material should
add to the effectiveness of the romance, not overwhelm it. I greatly fear that in the case of For My Lady’s Heart, there is so much arcane historical information, that the story and the plot get lost in the thicket.
This is a shame, because Howard’s hero and heroine are interesting characters and their romance has the potential to be most enjoyable. What a shame that the author didn’t have a good editor to take her in hand and help her to write the book that For My Lady’s Heart could have been.