After reading Marjorie Bowen’s Richard III novel, Dickon, a few weeks ago, my interest in the Wars of the Roses was rekindled and the next book I picked up was Royal Mistress, another novel set in the same period…but from a very different perspective. Anne Easter Smith’s heroine is Jane Shore, famous for being a mistress of Edward IV. Jane is not usually given a lot of attention, so I looked forward to seeing her character fleshed out and brought to life, and to learning more about her beyond her relationship with the king.
Born Elizabeth Lambert, Jane is the daughter of a prosperous London silk merchant (the name ‘Jane’ is thought to have been the invention of a 17th century playwright, but in this novel we are told that Elizabeth has taken the name Jane to distinguish her from an Aunt Elizabeth). Jane is married off at the age of twenty-two to William Shore, another mercer, or dealer in textiles. The marriage is not what she’d hoped it would be and Jane quickly discovers that while her husband is not above using her beauty to advertise his silks and satins, in the privacy of their own home he is cold, distant and has no interest in giving her the children she so desperately wants. To make things worse, Jane is still in love with Thomas Grey, with whom she’d had a brief romance before discovering that not only was he married, he was also the son of Elizabeth Woodville, queen of England.
As she begins to seek an annulment of her marriage, Jane catches the eye of Will Hastings, the king’s chamberlain, and through him she gets to know Edward IV. Royal Mistress follows Jane throughout the years of her relationship with the king, as she becomes an important part of Edward’s life and finds some of the warmth and affection that was missing in her marriage. After Edward’s death, however, Jane finds herself at the mercy of Richard III, who disapproves of her behaviour and wants to have her dismissed from court. Jane turns to Will Hastings for protection…but he is also out of favour with the new king and Jane’s safety cannot be guaranteed.
Royal Mistress is the first book I’ve read by Anne Easter Smith and I’ll be completely honest and say that, based purely on the title and front cover, I didn’t expect much from it. And after reading the first few chapters, I thought I was right. The story is slow to start, concentrating on a purely fictional romance between Jane and Tom Grey (it’s true that Jane was a mistress of Grey’s after Edward’s death, but there is no evidence of an earlier relationship between them) and while I did like Jane – she is portrayed as generous, warm-hearted and down-to-earth – her character didn’t seem to have a lot of depth or a lot of purpose other than being the mistress of various men.
As I got further into the novel, though, more characters are introduced, parts of the story are told from perspectives other than Jane’s, and I was swept away by the retelling of a period of history that I love. Reading the author’s note at the end of the book, I could see how much care had gone into her interpretations of the characters and their actions and motivations (even if I didn’t always agree with these interpretations). It’s interesting that Smith says she is a staunch supporter of Richard III and yet with this novel being written mainly from Jane’s point of view, it was necessary for her to portray Richard in a less than positive light. Where the disappearance of the princes in the tower is concerned, though, I was happy with the theory she puts forward as it’s one I find quite convincing.
I see Anne Easter Smith has written four more novels set during the same period, but while I did end up enjoying this one, I’m not sure yet whether I will want to read any of her others. I would like to read more about Jane Shore, though; I have a copy of Vanora Bennett’s Queen of Silks on my shelf which I hope to read soon, but if you can recommend any other books please let me know. I was interested to see that Jean Plaidy’s 1950 novel on Jane is called The Goldsmith’s Wife, as it was thought until recently that William Shore was a goldsmith rather than a mercer. Proof that history is still evolving!