Reviewed by Becky Benoit
Historical fiction has become big business in the publishing world. The private lives of the rich and famous have always fascinated the reading public, particularly the romantic escapes of royalty. Today, the scandals of the British royal family are pretty tame compared with the hijinx of kings and queens past, something that has not gone unnoticed by authors like Philippa Gregory and others of her ilk, who have successfully paired the public’s love of gossip and scandal with the colourful details of history. It’s said that there’s no better story than a true story, and when historical fiction is done right, it only serves to highlight this basic literary truism.
Historical fiction is a great seller these days, which means that authors are forced to search further afield for historical characters whose storied pasts lend themselves well to fiction. Anne Easter Smith has managed to find just such a character, a real person whose name is well-known in the annals of history, but about whom there is still enough mystery to provide that much-needed creative license.
Royal Mistress tells the story of Jane Shore, legendary mistress of Edward IV. Jane Shore’s name, her longevity as a mistress (an impressive eight years at a time when royal mistresses usually lasted a matter of months, not years), and her place at the centre of Edward’s court, known for its licentiousness and debauchery, are well known, but like so many historical characters, the smaller details of her life and personality are unknown.
In Easter Smith’s novel, young Jane, a mercer’s daughter chafing under the yoke of an abusive and disapproving father, longs to escape from under her parents’ roof. When she catches the eye of a young and handsome nobleman Tom Grey, Marquess of Dorset and the oldest son of Elizabeth Woodville, England’s queen, she believes that she’s found her path to freedom, but it’s not to be. Tom Grey is already married and simply looking for a love affair behind his wife’s back. When Jane’s father, eager to rid himself of his troublesome and headstrong daughter, marries her off to the dour William Shore, a fellow mercer, Jane settles into married life, still holding a torch for Tom Grey, now far beyond her reach.
Jane’s life is far from happy. Her husband is impotent, caring only for his business and having little patience for his gregarious and free-spirited wife. When Jane catches the eye of King Edward IV’s top advisor, William Hastings, he quickly recognizes her remarkable beauty and sweet nature. Before long, Jane has drawn the interest of the king himself, launching into a love affair that will last nearly a decade, earn her the enmity of the queen and bring Jane both material wealth, true love, shame and scandal.
Following Edward IV’s untimely death, Jane finds herself squarely in the sights of the stern Richard, brother to the king and Protector of the young prince Edward, who is now set to become Edward V. Richard is determined to reform his brother’s debauched court, and he intends to start with Jane, who he considers a harlot of the highest order. Jane knows she has to keep a low profile, but when Tom Grey reappears in her life, asking for a place to hide and money as he schemes against the new regime on his mother’s behalf, Jane can’t say no. Her misplaced love for Tom Grey threatens her wealth, her happiness and even her life, as she risks charges of treason, a prison sentence and even death on the block for the sake of her first love.
Ann Easter Smith does a fine job of staying true to the known details of Jane Shore’s life. Her research is extremely thorough, and trials and tribulations of Jane’s life, who was known as “the Rose of London” for her remarkable beauty and willingness to help those who had fallen from favour with the king, make for an interesting plot, full of twists and turns.
Sadly, I found the character of Jane Shore to be fairly one-dimensional in Easter Smith’s portrayal. Jane Shore is just a little too good to be true, coming to the king’s bed an untouched innocent, which seems somewhat unlikely, considering her life’s work. Easter Smith plays the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliche to the hilt, and it seems a little too manufactured to be real. It’s too bad, because the figure of Jane Shore is surely one of the more interesting from this period of England’s history, so much so that her name continues to be known today, more than five centuries later. Easter Smith paints Shore as the opposite of the “royal harlot” that Richard III branded her as, and instead makes her a somewhat clueless innocent who charms the king with her beauty and good nature, a helpless victim of the tornado-force winds of fortune in the battle for England’s throne.
This isn’t a bad book, but if you’re looking for good historical fiction, you could do better.