This one feels like a return to the court intrigue stylings of The Great Roxhythe, except it enjoys some key differences which, I think, have kept it in the general readership, if not (as far as I can discern) ranked it among Heyer’s most beloved works.
One difference is the battles, which are furious and exhilarating. Heyer knows her way around a broadsword and medieval military strategy, and the final thrust of the narrative, in which William the Conqueror actually gets to conquering, is first rate.
The Great Roxhythe really suffered from a lack of long bow men, it turns out.
The other main difference is that presumably fictional character of the devoted servant of the king (at first, Duke) here, on Raoul de Harcourt, is given a tender, if bittersweet, romance with the intrepid Elfrida, which Roxhythe really only got to have with his secretary, Christopher.
There is a lot in this book that is admirable and engaging, and it truly does bring history to life, to employ a very overused phrase. But the problem with bringing history to life is that history was pretty dark and depressing at times, and the scene where William whips — yes, with an actual leather horsewhip — Princess Matilda of Flanders and then forces her to marry him, for political expediency. The fact that they later fall into a twisted kind of love is as much a foreshadowing of the explosion of S&M sub/dom fetish lifestyle as it is an example of how powerless and pawn-like women of the era were, especially those born to the higher ranks.
I’m not saying that S&M sub/dom is twisted, by the way. I’m just saying that Matilda was basically Christian Greyed into it, but with a whip instead of a contract and the promise of luxury air travel.
So that aspect of the story, I have to assume, is relatively true, because why else put in that kind of brutality and unpleasantness from your so-called here? Well, Raoul is really the hero of the novel, but William is his hero, so that is close enough. It’s enough that the man conquered England. Surely we didn’t have to witness him literally conquer a woman — with physical abuse — as well?
Of course, as I am constantly reminded, different times, different norms. And freedom from violence, especially domestic violence, continues to allude women the world over. But nowadays that kind of thing is either written from a survivor’s perspective, or as a cautionary tale, or very firmly by the villain of the piece. It is definitely a Bad Thing. Here, William’s vicious treatment of Mathilda is presented as some kind of… romantic seduction technique.
It’s very hard to forgive the book for that. Even despite history, and context, and historical context, I’m really just not sure I can.
Maura Tan was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Morocco and lives in Singapore, where she is currently studying for her third degree in Contemporary Literature—when not writing reviews for Romantic Intentions Quarterly and eating her body weight in durian.