I have never before read a full-length Bertrice Small novel, though I have read an anthology contribution or two. I have, of course, heard much about them, and was looking forward to a great campy, sex romp of a book, with Tudor Court Intrigue as the backdrop. Well, there is very little romping and who knew that Henry VIII’s court could be so very dull?
Phillipa Meredith is the heiress of Friarsgate, her mother Rosamund’s estate in Cumberland. She has been a Maid of Honor to Queen Katherine of Aragon since she was twelve, and loves the court life; the intrigue, the excitement, the clothing. The idea of marrying and settling on a glorified sheep farm is anathema to her, but when the man she was to marry chooses the church over her, she is devastated and sent home to get over her disappointment. There she shows just how ready she is for marriage by fighting with her younger sisters and throwing repeated temper tantrums. She’s fifteen years old! She’ll never find a husband! She’s going to be an old maid! She hates it here! She wants to go back to court! She wants to get her bellybutton pierced! (Oh, sorry – wrong fifteen year old.)
Her whining and complaints are never-ending and so her Uncle Thomas agrees to take her off her mother’s hands and find a solution to the problem of Phillipa. He does this by outbidding Crispin St. Claire, the Earl of Witton, in purchasing an estate closer to London which he gives to Phillipa as her dowry in lieu of Friarsgate. Uncle Thomas then suggests to Crispin that he can still have the land if he will marry Phillipa. Crispin is thirty years old, thinks it’s time to settle down, and though Phillipa is a bit long in the tooth, he’ll take her. He then proceeds to call her “little one” at every opportunity and to admire her small, young breasts. The age difference may be historically accurate, but having the hero a year older than the heroine’s mother was a bit of an Ick Factor for me.
And that about sums up the story. So how does Bertrice Small fill 378 pages? Lots and lots of padding. It seems as if the past histories of every member of King Henry’s court are given, even if that person never makes another appearance in the book. What everyone ate and wore and where they slept is described in excruciating detail.
There is also lots and lots of repetition. This is Phillipa’s story, but Rosamund’s history is told and retold whenever Phillipa is introduced to someone so that there is really no need to read Rosamund. A scene will take place in the novel and then is repeated to a non-participant. And then to another one. I counted six retellings of the same scene in one instance. Crispin and Phillipa’s plans for their life after the wedding are told over and over. Yes, yes – they will travel to France with the king and queen on the Summer Progress, then to Friarsgate to see Phillipa’s younger sister wed, then to court for Christmas, wintering at Crispin’s estate but returning to court in May – yes, I know. I remember the itinerary from the first three times I read it.
I can only presume that all this detail and repetition obviates the need for an actual plot, though finally on page 319 a glimmer of one rears its head when Phillipa overhears a scheme to kill King Henry. But this little diversion is quickly disposed of by page 343.
A quick word about the Sensuality Rating. This book had a solid “Warm” rating (and imagine my surprise when I was looking forward to a real campy boink-athon) until one sex scene twenty pages from the end where our couple has Fun with Condiments. There is one paragraph where strawberries and cream are slathered on Phillipa and one additional paragraph where Crispin dips his “Lover’s Lance” in a pot of honey to be licked clean. Both of these acts take place on the same page. While there’s nothing remotely “hot” about this short scene, it does technically bump the Sensuality Rating from “Warm” to “Hot.” The scene read like Bertrice Small suddenly realized that she was twenty pages from the end and hadn’t done anything remotely kinky, and so half-heartedly tossed in this lame scene as a sop. Too little, too late, I say!