The Maiden Bride
The Maiden Bride takes place during a sad and frightening period in history. During the fourteenth century, the Black Death ravaged the countryside, decimating the populations of villages, estates and monasteries. Thousands upon thousands of peasants, tradesmen, and crafts people died. Labor was short and in many places there simply were not enough people to till the land, bake the bread and do all the other things that it takes to operate a rural society.
I have long been fascinated with this era, but unfortunately, The Maiden Bride does not live up to its setting. Its characters seem more like twentieth or twenty-first century folks dealing with modern disaster than a highly religious people trying to sort out the mysterious ways of God.
The Maiden Bride opens with the arrival of Lady Eleanor Bayard at the dilapidated Castle Faulkhurst. Eleanor is the bride of Lord William Bayard, a soldier who married her by proxy, but never came to claim her. Eleanor has learned that William is dead and so she has come to take over his holding. On her arrival, Lady Eleanor meets Nicholas, a solemn and brooding man who announces to her that he was a soldier with William and that he will now serve as her steward. It seems that everyone else who lived at Castle Faulkhurst is dead.
What Eleanor doesn’t know is that the man calling himself Nicholas is really her husband, Lord William Bayard. William had come back from his life of fighting and pillaging in time to see those people under his protection die, including his own illegitimate son. He was so broken by this that he decided to change his name, leave the castle and go live the life of a monk.
Nicholas decides to keep his identity a secret when he meets Eleanor, but also decides to remain at the castle until he can be sure she is safe. Eleanor has a plan to repopulate the keep, which includes paying new tenants to permanently move in. In the course of the story, Nicholas falls madly in love with his wife, but resists her because of his decision to leave. Throughout the book, these two torture each other with unresolved love and lust. Eleanor thinks she has fallen in love with a steward. Nicholas not only feels he should keep his vow, he is afraid to tell Eleanor the truth about the husband whom she never met, but seems to hate.
One would think that the tone of a book set in the aftermath of the Black Death would be dark. The tone of The Maiden Bride is so light that it’s easy to lose track of the setting. Eleanor has an if-we-all-pitch-in-we-can-make-things right sort of philosophy, that would go better in less dire surroundings. Arriving at Castle Faulkhurst (after all of its inhabitants have died) she announces airily “all it needs is a little paint.”
In spite of his plan to become a monk, Nicholas seems surprisingly secular. Here is a man determined to dedicate his life to God. Does he pray? Hardly. He sure does swear a lot, though. In fact, both Eleanor and Nicholas take the Lord’s name in vain on a regular basis. For much of the book its the only way that either one seems to think about God. Only at the very end of the book do the two speak of God and even then it is not in the language of the Church. This is a major failing for a book set in the fourteenth century after the Plague.
Despite this, Nicholas makes a pretty good hero and his decision not to tell Eleanor his identity is convincing. Eleanor is less successful. She’s a bit like Julie Garwood’s heroines, with her wide-eyed trust in everyone. Eleanor has been through some awful things. What annoyed me about her was not her ability to smile in the face of adversity, but, that she seems so untouched by the difficulties in her life.
All that said, The Maiden Bride is not a dull story, nor is it a bad book. It is resoundingly average because it is so lacking in period feeling. What may determine your enjoyment of this book is your own demand for historical period feeling. If you enjoy stories set in the Middle Ages and don’t mind characters who seem to spring from contemporary America, you may enjoy it more than I did.