Bertrice Small’s Rosamund is a romance novel only insofar as the author obviously assumes that we will all presumably fall in love with its eponymous heroine. Its storyline, incredible research and the promise (or threat?) that Rosamund’s story will be continued in the next book all speak of a family saga rather than a romance, like Colleen McCullough or Anya Seton. Unfortunately, Rosamund’s story is not all that captivating, and while Small’s research is extensive and well-placed within the book, the stilted writing, two-dimensional characters, and unintentially hysterical sex scenes make it difficult to slog through.
Rosamund Bolton is the heiress to a small manor, Friarsgate, on the border between England and Scotland, an unusual situation because she is female. Her loutish uncle Henry Bolton has guardianship of her and is determined to control Friarsgate by choosing her husbands. She is married first (at age six) to Henry’s son, who dies soon thereafter. Henry’s next choice for a husband is Hugh Cabot, an old man who treats the thirteen year-old Rosamund as his daughter (ie, they never have sex).
Hugh has ensured her safety by leaving her in Henry VII’s care, much to her uncle’s chagrin, and Rosamund is summoned to the court to meet her guardian and acquire a bit more polish. In the meantime, she has become an able overseer of her estate, and she has much trepidation about leaving her environs for the dangers of court life. Once there, however, she makes friends with Katherine of Aragon, who has yet to marry the incipient Henry VIII and Henry’s sister, Margaret, soon to be married to James of Scotland. Since Rosamund is not an important personage in the court, she is somehow safe to befriend, and she becomes close with the two girls – both around her age – as well as getting noticed by Henry VII’s mother, referred to continually as the Venerable Margaret. She is protected, therefore, when the young prince Henry (VIII) notices her and tries to seduce her. Based on her relationship with Margaret and the Venerable Margaret, she is able to choose her next husband, and fortunately is left sexually unscathed by Henry’s interest.
Her next husband is finally someone with whom she can have a normal married relationship (at last, no longer a virgin!). Although she loves him, he is much more enthralled by her, which makes the relationship seem one-sided. On her wedding day, she meets a Scottish neighbor who insists he loves her and will marry her someday (smells like sequel to me). She, naturally enough, refuses him and ends up living fairly happily with her third husband, although she is saddened that she does not bear him sons, only daughters. When he dies suddenly, she is summoned to Henry VIII’s court, where she views court life with a new, more cynical attitude and decides to live her life on her own terms, which means taking a lover if she wants and refusing another husband if she doesn’t. While at court, Rosamund continually amazes people – including Henry himself – with her auburn hair, brandy-colored eyes, and sweetly rounded breasts. It seems that since Rosamund was finally able to choose her own sex partners, she is able to lose her inhibitions at last (not that they were particulary noticeable – no ice queen her), so the sex scenes at the end of the novel are far more purple than those in the middle.
The novel ends somewhat abruptly, but also practically shepherding us (“I am not some ewe sheep to be bred by the Scots ram,” Rosamund shouts at one point; the sheep motif was a fairly consistent one) to the next novel. Rosamund is reacquainted with her nasty uncle’s son and his avaricious, grasping wife as well as the mysterious Scottish man who, during a tussle with her, says “I love you, though why I do not know.” Since he’s spent all of about five minutes in her company, it’s not clear to me, either.
Small’s writing veers between long, detailed passages of what her characters wore, ate and said and the hyperbolic sex scenes, which are ludicrous in their description. For example, Rosamund asks her husband, “Will you mount me like the ram mounts his eye sheep?” (And no, the text does not continue ” ‘Yes,’ he bleated sheepishly.”) Small enjoys using “love” as a prefix, citing a love rod, love shaft, love lance, love bud, love bower and love dew. Although it was graphic, it just wasn’t sexy.
What was more interesting was Small’s research into the period, including detailed analysis of England’s political situation, and intimate glimpses into real people from history (Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII and Queen Margaret of Scotland, in particular). Unfortunately, her fictional character didn’t come alive the way the real people did, and Rosamund herself was formulaically written: smart, passionate, sexually adventurous (but in a good way), loyal, courageous, etc. There was nothing to distinguish her from the pack of perfect heroines flaunting their stunning bosoms.
To make matters worse, Small’s stilted, formal writing contrasts awkwardly with her overblown sex scenes, and while her research seems impeccable, no reader should have to slog through this altogether uninteresting woman’s story just to get to it. As one of a few romance authors to write romances set in this period; it’s a pity she couldn’t find a way to mesh her knowledge of larger-than-life historical personages with a story more worth reading.