Last year I reviewed A Memory of Love by Bertrice Small. While I didn’t recommend it, I was sufficiently intrigued by it that I volunteered to review this one as well. I’m now sorry I did that – I was deeply disappointed by this book.
The innocent of the title is Eleanore “Elf” de Montfort, an orphan who is put into a convent when she’s a small child because her brother’s evil wife doesn’t want to raise her. Elf is reared in cloistered virtue, fully intending to devote her life to God. Then she is summoned home to Ashlin to see her brother, who is dying.
It quickly becomes obvious that Elf’s brother is being poisoned by his aforementioned evil wife, Isleen. When he dies, Elf inherits the estate, even though she plans to take orders as a nun. The king steps in and marries her to a much older knight (he’s thirty, she’s fourteen), so that her strategically important estate won’t fall into the hands of the church. Love blossoms between Elf and her husband, Ranulf de Glandeville, but soon the wicked Isleen will return to cause trouble for them.
Elf is everything that is good. She is beautiful, obedient, gentle, a skilled healer, intelligent, passionate, and nice. All this, at age fourteen. Her husband, Ranulf, is similarly endowed: handsome, manly, brave, virtuous, loyal, honest, and gentle. It is, of course, inevitable that two such peerless specimens of humanity should find love and great sex in their marriage.
I realize that it was not unusual in the Middle Ages for women as young as fourteen to wed to much older men. But I find it impossible to feel much liking for a romantic hero of thirty who falls passionately in love with a fourteen-year-old. This is not romantic, and the love scenes between them are not exciting. (They probably wouldn’t be even without the age disparity: in every love scene, Small has Elf go “Ohhhhhhhhh” over and over again, as an indication of her ecstasy.) Elf and Ranulf are utterly one-dimensional, cartoon-like characters, who never from a moment waver from what the plot demands them to be. For instance, because the plot requires that there be some conflict between them, they keep their love secret from each other. There’s a lot of italicized contemplation, like this: “How I love him/her! If only I could tell her/him how much I love her/him!”
The boredom of this situation is frequently interrupted by descriptions of the pornographic adventures of Isleen. She, we are told, is a “born whore:” blonde, vain, stupid, and lustful, a nymphomaniac who beats the serfs and can’t have children. She passionately hates Elf and is obsessed with causing her to be imprisoned, raped, tortured, and murdered. We are treated an unhealthy amount of skanky villain sex between Isleen and her wicked accomplice.
It is in its treatment of the character of Isleen that The Innocent goes from being rather stupid and dull to being truly offensive and anger-inducing. Does anyone else have a problem with the idea that a woman can be a “born whore?” There are numerous scenes in which Isleen is verbally, physically and sexually abused, which arouses her and causes feelings of love for her abuser to blossom in her heart. Isleen is gang-raped twice in this book (if you can call it rape when the victim loves every minute of it), and we’re treated to the details. The man who does this to her finds redemption, but
Isleen comes to an untimely end. Indeed, it is strongly implied that Isleen is so bad, God will readily forgive her murderer for removing her from the earth.
I don’t know why Small chose to devote so much of her book to detailed descriptions of the humiliating depravity of a vicious, sex-addicted woman. (And I’m pretty sure that there are more scenes of Isleen’s degrading encounters than there are love scenes between Elf and Ranulf.) I think I was supposed to find it arousing. I didn’t.
Not long ago I read a romance that sensitively portrayed how it might feel for a medieval woman to be forced into a marriage of convenience with an older stranger: The Secret Swan by Shana Abé. This book does nothing of the kind – it’s a paint-by-numbers romance that Small could have written in her sleep, interspersed with sadistic, misogynist erotica that turned my stomach. I’m not likely to seek out Bertrice Small’s books again.