Blythe Gifford’s latest historical romance is set in a most unusual period – Ghent at the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. That in itself would have drawn my attention, but in addition, Innocence Unveiled proved compelling and interesting, making much of this little-used setting.
The historic background is as follows: Edward III of England regards himself as rightful heir to the French throne, and in order to gain allies against King Philip of France, he is forging an alliance with the dukedoms and counties in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands. He has not been successful so far in Flanders, because the Count of Flanders has strong ties to Philip. As a result, Edward passed a wool embargo on Flanders, deeply hurting the weaving industry of Ghent, which depends on the import of English wool.
Among the weavers desperate for wool is Katrine, who is a weaver with all her heart. Her situation is an especially grave one because her father, a younger son of the aristocracy, chose to go into business with master weaver Gilles de Vos. Gilles died some time back, and Katrine’s father is imprisoned in England for trying to break the wool embargo. As a woman, she only receives tolerance from the rest of guild during her father’s absence. And her uncle, who tries to usurp control over her, has an interest in her that is creepingly more than avuncular. When a smuggler from neighbouring Brabant turns up and offers her three sacks of the best wool for some money and for lodging during the next weeks, she gladly accepts the bargain.
Renard is no smuggler, however; he is a secret agent for the English king and in Ghent to stir up dissent against the count. He is cousin to Edward, the illegitimate son of a Plantagenet princess and and an unknown father. Brought up at the English court as a bastard, he is utterly dependent on the king, whom he serves. Edward has promised him the position of bishop if he delivers Flanders to him. This might finally mean security and a position in society for Renard, so he is desperate to succeed. After living with the results of what he perceives as his mother’s lechery all his life, Renard has becomes a misogynist who actually welcomes the prospect of celibacy, as this will end all sexual temptation for him.
Katrine is almost as screwed-up as Renard is. Once a successful businesswoman and a proud artisan, she reacts with fear to everything now, but this stems from her extremely precarious situation and improves once she feels safe again. A greater inner struggle is caused by her almost non-existent sense of value as a woman. She has red hair, which she considers a sign of the devil and of inherent moral corruption. She hides her hair and believes that not only will no man ever desire her, but she will also repel any man with her uncontrollable sexual urges. Ultimately, she appears the stronger of the two characters, and I warmed to her quicker than I did to Renard, but then he has far more reason for his insecurities and a longer way to go.
I loved the way Blythe Gifford deals with the topic of sexuality in her novel. Far too often, characters in historicals sport a very 21st century attitude towards their bodies and sex. Not here. For these people, sexual attraction is caused by the devil and thus to be feared, and it is the weakness inherent in women since Eve that causes man’s downfall. So yes, both Katrine and Renard fight terrible inner struggles not to give in to their attraction, and suffer bouts of self-disgust when they first show their desires. This makes their gradual acceptance of their urges and their love all the more moving (and sexier) to read about.
Although some external developments cause problems for Katrine and Renard, this is mostly a character-driven story. At times, with so much speaking against their union, I wondered how the author would achieve a believable HEA. In my opinion, she does so, but not without a hitch. In a pivotal scene, Katrine comes into her own dramatically, but Renard’s constant distrust of her ultimately required another character to act completely irrationally in order to turn the situation in favor of Katrine. I am all in favor of the hero getting the results of his jerklike behavior thrown back into his face, but it comes here at the cost of some plausibility. The ending proper is unusual, very, very sweet, and utterly satisfactory.
I enjoyed reading Innocence Unveiled very much, and strongly recommend it to those who like the Medieval setting and a character-driven romance. Although some developments could have used some more space, all in all this novel’s merits far outweigh its relatively minor flaws.