Desert Isle Keeper
In Pursuit of the Green Lion
There are defining texts in many of romance’s subgenres for me: Novels that may be among the first I read in a subgenre, but, more important, encompass for me all that is fascinating about the subgenre. For historical novels (or romances) set in the Middle Ages, among these texts are the Margaret of Ashbury books by Judith Merkle Riley, the most romantic of which is this one, the second in the sequence.
In the prologue, Margaret is feeling a bit overwhelmed with the task of raising her wilful daughters Cecily and Alison, and planning to write a book of household recipes and other useful material for them, when she hears the voice of God who orders her to write what her daughters really need to know about, which is love. Margaret’s husband scoffs at her flouting all literary conventions (this being the age of unfulfilled love sung about by troubadours), but she goes ahead with her writing anyway.
The novel proper starts out immediately after a wedding: The newly widowed Margaret has been forced to marry her former scribe, Brother Gregory (alias Gilbert de Vilers) because his greedy family wants to secure her fortune. Margaret and Gregory have known and (mostly) respected each other for a time, but this marriage is not what either wanted; Gregory still sees himself as a clergyman, and Margaret feels this is too soon for a new marriage, only days after her beloved husband Roger’s death. Yet marrying Gregory is far to be preferred to marrying his obnoxious older brother Hugo. The de Vilers family carry Margaret and her daughters to their run-down estate, and that’s where she must deal with the hand she has been given.
The novel describes the phase in a romance where most printed romances leave off: early married life. Gregory is probably the most stubborn man alive and especially delights in aggravating his father. He is deeply attached to Margaret, but hides his feelings for a long time under a veneer of intellectualism garnished with a hefty dose of the misogynism rampant at the period. He also finds it difficult to deal with the fact that Margaret hears God’s voice at times and has a wonderful gift of healing, while he, who strove for a holy lifestyle for so long, has yet to directly experience God’s presence.
Margaret is far more attuned to her feelings than Gregory, but she must deal with her daughters, father-in-law, brother-in-law, two ghosts, and a pigsty of a keep. Just when matters between her and Gregory start to improve, he is forced to travel to France as part of the Black Prince’s retinue, and doesn’t return after a battle. Margaret is firmly convinced, though, that Gregory is alive, and accompanied by her old friends Hilde (a midwife) and Brother Malachi (a less than successful alchemist) crosses the Channel to find him and fetch him back.
What I love about this romance is every single one of the characters, how religion is part of everyday life without any preachiness, how life in the Middle Ages is evoked with all the color and sounds and smells you could wish for. I also love the way that Judith Merkle Riley creates a world that is both recognizable and alien for a twentieth-century reader. The novel is whimsically humorous at times, deeply frightening and profoundly sad at others.
If you like medievals and are prepared to read one that has a style that is all its own, try Judith Merkle Riley’s novels. I should add that starting with the first volume, A Vision of Light, even enhances the pleasure of reading In Pursuit of the Green Lion. But in the end, it works well as a part of this series or as a stand-alone, and I highly recommend it.