Friday, July 15, 2011

Should I give up on Medieval Romance? Or, Lack of Personal Hygiene is Not Romantic

It seems like the last week or so I’ve been reading a lot of romantic suspense, so I decided to change things up a bit and try something completely different. I went to my Kindle (always dangerous) and started looking through the Kindle store for books by authors I liked and discovered that Madeline Hunter has written several books I hadn't read yet. Now, I loved Ms. Hunter’s Rarest Blooms series after I discovered the books at the library, so I thought I’d give one of her earlier books a try. I chose By Possession, and after putting it down, then picking it up, then putting it down again, I realized that maybe I should have read the back blurb a little more closely, because it’s a medieval romance. And the problems I had with the book are not in any way related to the writing – Ms. Hunter does a wonderful job and clearly has researched her topic. Unfortunately, reality and medieval times just don’t strike me as romantic. I mean, no one brushed their teeth, for goodness sake! Also, there were no flush toilets, which is just gross, and people smelled really bad. If you were really lucky and had money, you could afford to bathe once a month and had perfume to cover the stink the other 29 days of the month. That’s just nasty. And I can’t help thinking about that when the hero and heroine start to DO the nasty, because I’m wondering if they’ve bathed recently or have lice or anything, which is a total mood killer, let me tell you!
Of course, most romance novels with medieval settings don’t mention that sort of thing, and really, neither do contemporary romances. Who wants to think about toilets in a romance novel? But when I’m reading a contemporary, I pretty much assume that the hero wears deodorant and brushes and flosses, so no problems there. The real problem with medieval romances for me is the way the women are treated. If the book makes any sort of attempt to be true to the period, women have no control over whom they marry or are allowed to own personal property, which is just awful. And that was the problem I ran into when I was reading Madeline Hunter’s By Possession. The hero is a nobleman and the heroine a bondwoman – or is she? You see, there’s some doubt about her actually belonging to him. She claims to have been freed earlier and almost everyone agrees, but the hero claims that’s not the case. So she’s stuck. This doesn’t strike me as a very loveable quality in one’s hero, am I right? Yeah, I pretty much wanted to stab him in his well-fitted tunic and hose, but alas, that was not what happened. The book does get much better, even for my modern sensibilities, but I decided that maybe I should just stay away from medieval romance for awhile.
Then I remembered that I’ve read medieval romances by two of my favorite authors ever, Amanda Quick and Christina Dodd, and even LOVED them, so maybe medieval romance isn’t so bad. Also, one of my all-time favorite mystery series is Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books, which are wonderful and occasionally have romantic elements. And that prompted me to rethink my decision to give up on medievals. Here are 4 mini-reviews of medieval romances that I did like, including the not-as-bad-as-I-made-it-sound By Possession.
Christina Dodd Candle in the Window
This is one of the first books by Ms. Dodd I read, and it’s a real charmer. It also has the dubious distinction of having a cover with a heroine with three arms when first printed. (Check out the picture to the left.) Fortunately it’s been reprinted many, many times and the lovely Lady Saura of Roget no longer has an extra appendage (ahem). It takes place in 1153 in England, where Lady Saura is considered one of the most beautiful women in all the country. She’s been summoned to help Sir William of Miraval learn to deal with an injury that has caused him to go blind. Sir William is appropriately hunky and she’s not your typical medieval wench, so sparks fly. Lady Saura is an unusual heroine, because she’s been blind from birth, and I love watching her whip Sir William and his household into shape. Competent women of any time period are truly appealing, and Lady Saura is a real gem. Quite frankly, Ms. Dodd’s delightful sense of humor makes this one a lot of fun to read and led me to spend a lot of money I didn't have on her other books.
Amanda Quick’s Desire
While I’m no expert, I believe this is probably the least “realistic” of the medieval romances I’m listing here, but if you read romance for realism, you’re just crazy. Who does that? The novel begins with Lady Clare from the remote British Isle of Desire having written to her liege lord, asking him to send her several suitors so that she may choose one for a husband. Instead of listening to her requirements, which include that her suitors be of medium stature, pleasing disposition, and a man of learning, Thurston of Landry sends her one suitor – his son, Sir Gareth of Wyckmere, aka the Hellhound of Wyckmere. If you’re thinking that any guy nicknamed “Hellhound” probably isn’t of medium height or of pleasing disposition, you’d be right. At least that’s how it seems to Lady Clare when she meets Sir Gareth, but appearances can be deceiving. Ms. Quick (aka Jayne Ann Krentz) writes some truly hilarious scenes, particularly the wedding night.
Amanda Quick’s Mystique
This and Desire are the only medieval romances that Ms. Quick has written, and this is my favorite of the two, even though Desire is a hoot. I love Mystique because the heroine is quite talented at working around the limited choices she has. She wants to go to a convent to study rocks and minerals, but her uncle will not allow that. When Lady Alice’s father died, his lame son was deemed unable to defend his lands properly and the lands reverted to Alice’s uncle. Yet despite this, Lady Alice manages to make her uncle pay and drives off several unwelcome suitors. It’s only when Sir Hugh the Relentless arrives, searching for a green crystal, that Alice is able to escape her Uncle’s home. Sir Hugh makes a bargain with the intrepid Lady Alice that she will pose as his fiancée until they recover his green crystal and then she can retire to a convent, but he actually plans on convincing her to become his wife in truth. While in general medieval men may not have appreciated intelligent women, it’s a pleasure to see Sir Hugh’s appreciation of Lady Alice's many interests.
Madeline Hunter’s By Possession
By now you may have decided to give Ms. Hunter’s medieval romance a pass after reading that the hero, Addis de Valance, refuses to admit that Moira Falkner is a free woman so he can keep her near, but that would be a mistake. Of the four books mentioned here, By Possession is by far the most “realistic” in how the medieval men and women interact with one another. It’s set in the 14th century during the reign of King Edward II, and in addition to the realistic gender relations there’s also a lovely description of London at the time. When I say lovely, I mean gross, but let’s face it, pretty much every town of any size in medieval Europe had to be pretty rank. Two words – no sewers! But despite the harsh realism surrounding Addis de Valance’s treatment of a woman not of his class, their romance is both touching and sensual. There were plenty of moments when I wondered if this book could possibly have a happy ending, but it all resolves beautifully and the history that unfolds alongside the romance is gripping. While this is not a humorous romance the way that the other three are, it is definitely a great read.

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