The Bought Bride
by Juliet Landon
(Harl. Hist. #766, $5.50, PG-13) 0-373-29366-6
Her merchant father's death at sea is the first in a series of losses Lady Rhoese of York sustains. Her grief provokes a miscarriage. Her lover, believing his bread will be better earned elsewhere, leaves her for her stepmother. She and her blind brother are all but forced out of their paternal house. No wonder she wants to hold onto the estates she inherited from her mother.

But in post-Conquest England this is not to be. As the novel correctly points out, Norman law is much less favorable to married women's right to property than English law, a fact the conquerors used to consolidate their hold of the land. Caught in the struggles over who should succeed William I to the throne, William Rufus earned the support of his wavering followers by marrying off English landladies to Norman knights. Rhoese is no exception. He gives her to the highest bidder: Judhael de Brionne.

Although attracted to Jude - as he is also known - Rhoese dreads associating with the Norman enemies and resists the attacks on her independence. She also fears what will happen in the long run when, after she has delivered an heir, her husband will inevitably turn elsewhere. She will have to add the loss of his love and attention to her already-long list. She vows not to fall in love with him. Jude, on the other hand, is determined to possess Rhoese's heart as much as the rest of her. And so, with both hostilities between the English and the Normans and conspiracies against the crown in the background, their own battle begins.

When Judhael is sent to arrest the treasonous Bishop of Durham, he insists Rhoese follows him. She has her own reasons for going along: she hopes to return a manuscript placed in her family's protection to Barking Abbey, thereby keeping it out of the hands of Norman pillagers and collectors. But others have their eye on the treasure, a plot twist that further complicates the relationship between the lovers.

The manuscript's fate is one of many subplots that ultimately distracts from the main story. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, much is made of two murders, which are then quickly solved and dispensed with. By the same token, there are far too many secondary characters whose roles at best overlap and at worst are not always clear.

Some characters are real historical figures. Jude's friend and confident, Ranulf Flambard, the-then chaplain to William Rufus and the future Bishop of Durham, was known for his mischief-making and for his self-serving plotting. In this novel, his thirst for power and his crafty behind-the-scene manipulation has its part in bringing the lovers together.

While playful with history, Landon is generally both accurate and subtle, and The Bought Bride, as a whole, does a fine job investigating how women more-than-survive in a society that deprives them of most legal rights. Sometimes, however, Landon overdoes her eye for detail. "Lung complaints were one of the commonest ailments, the chaplain mused," is one of several rather clumsy attempts to slip in irrelevant factual information. I couldn't help feeling like a child whose mother has served extra rich ice-cream with fresh fruit to make sure I get my daily dose of vitamins along with all that sugar and fat. I gobbled it all down as quickly as I could, and I am glad to say that, though annoying, the healthy lumps didn't completely ruin my pleasure.

--Mary Benn

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