Jane Shore: The Merry Mistress

jane-shore Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane, was a mistress of King Edward IV of England and said to be “merry in company, ready and quick of answer”. She often appears in fiction set during the Wars of the Roses as a minor character – depending on the book, either as a bad influence or a comfort to Edward in his declining health, and a possible conspirator against his brother, Richard III – but several novels have also been written specifically about Jane. I have read two recently and am combining my reviews into one post.

The first of the two books is an old one, written in the 19th century by Mary Bennett, a truly ‘forgotten’ author if ever there was one. She’s so forgotten that I’ve struggled to find any biographical information at all about her (the Database of Victorian Fiction has a paragraph) and can’t even find a definite publication date for Jane Shore – I think it could have been 1869. It seems that Bennett had quite a few novels published, though, so she must have had some level of success at the time.

As Jane was a relatively unimportant historical figure, there is still a lot that we don’t know about her today; obviously even less would have been known in Bennett’s day and fewer sources would have been available to her in researching her book.  Bennett refers to Jane as the daughter of Mr Winstead and the wife of Matthew Shore, ‘the goldsmith’,  while most modern novels give Jane’s father’s name as John Lambert and her husband’s as William Shore, not a goldsmith but a mercer.  It’s difficult for me to comment on the historical accuracy of Jane Shore, then, as it depends on which sources the author had to work from – and it could be that what was considered accurate then is not considered accurate now.

Bennett’s Jane is portrayed, in typical Victorian style, as an innocent, virtuous young woman at the mercy of the king, his friend Will Hastings, and several other men who want to steal her away from her father and husband. She is the sort of person who has things happen to her rather than making them happen herself, which means she is not the most interesting of characters to read about. In fact, I didn’t feel that any of the characters in this novel ever came to life on the page or seemed like real people at all.

The book is entertaining in parts – mainly when the action switches to Wales and the story of two fictional characters, Nesta Llewellyn and the musician Leolin – but very tedious in others and certainly wouldn’t be the best introduction to Jane Shore’s life.  Having read it, I understand now why Bennett is a forgotten author!

the-merry-mistressAfter reading the Mary Bennett book, I remembered that I had also received The Merry Mistress by Philip Lindsay from NetGalley a while ago, along with another book of his, The Devil and King John. I had mixed feelings about the King John book so was a bit apprehensive about reading this one. I’m determined to get my NetGalley shelf up to date, though, so I decided to give The Merry Mistress a try anyway.

The first thing to say is that this book couldn’t be more different from the Bennett one! Lindsay’s Jane is a much more forceful personality who decides what she wants out of life and then goes and gets it. I expect the fact that this novel was published more recently – in the 1950s – will have something to do with that. But despite Jane making a point of telling us that she expects no rewards or favours from the king in return for becoming his mistress and that she always does her best to help the poor and needy, I didn’t think she was a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. She uses her beauty to get her own way or to manipulate the men around her and I found her quite a shallow, controlling person.

The story is narrated by Jane herself, beginning as she is forced to walk through the streets of London dressed in her kirtle as public penance for her part in the conspiracy between Will Hastings and the Woodvilles. Jane then looks back on her life, starting with her unhappy marriage to the mercer William Shore and then taking us through her romances with Edward IV, Hastings and Thomas Grey, the Marquess of Dorset. Lindsay ignores other possible facets of Jane’s character to focus almost exclusively on her relationships with the men in her life. I appreciate that Jane was a royal mistress, after all, and not famous for much else, but I still felt that this book needed something more.

Things do become more interesting and more compelling in the final third of the novel, when Edward’s death throws the court and the country into disarray once more after several years of relative stability. However, this is very much Jane’s story, so politics are pushed into the background apart from when they touch directly on Jane’s life. Still, I thought The Merry Mistress was a much better novel than Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore. My personal recommendation, though, would be to skip both of these and read Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith instead!

Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith

Royal Mistress 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!