The Marriage Bed
Everything about Isabel’s too blatant desire for him had been wrong – wrong in God’s eyes the world’s. She had been betrothed to his brother; therefore, she was his sister by marriage, her attraction for him both incestuous and adulterous. She had become a stone thrown against his honor and the honor of his house.
Richard and Isabel meet when they are both extremely young, fostered to Lord Henley’s estate at Manton. The best of friends from the first, their relationship changes as they grow. In adolescence Isabel, who is spoiled and willful, makes no secret of her passionate love for Richard, in spite of the fact that she has been betrothed from birth to his brother. Richard loves and desires Isabel, too; but he is a serious boy, and he sees the growing attraction between himself and Isabel as a sin. Events come to a head, and Richard, believing himself thoroughly damned, goes to a monastery to dedicate his life to God and to attempt to cleanse his soul.
We learn this history through flashbacks. When we meet Richard, he has been a novice monk for a year, and is beset by intensely sexual, erotic dreams of Isabel almost every night. Then he learns that Isabel’s father and betrothed are both dead, and their overlord has commanded Richard and Isabel to wed.
Isabel is thrilled, but guilty. She has wanted Richard all her life, without regard for honor, duty, or virtue, and she is determined to be happy now that she has him – even though it meant the death of her betrothed. Richard, on the other hand, is horrified. It’s not that he doesn’t want Isabel – but he sees his passion for her as a fundamental betrayal of everything that he believes in. The eventual consummation between these two characters is one of the most agonizing I’ve ever read.
The conflict between the protagonists stems entirely from their personalities and from the time and culture in which they lived. That’s a wonderful and rare thing. Richard and Isabel emphatically do not act like twentieth-century people in a Hollywood reenactment of the middle ages. They act like people who have been bound to their stations and their duties from birth. They know they can never marry. They know their love is forbidden. She wants to seize whatever moments she can with her beloved; he, more realistic and more mature, wants to do his duty to God. When circumstances change, they believe that their eventual marriage was decreed by God.
Isabel is kind of a chore at first. As a teenager she practically hounded Richard with her infatuation. But watching her grow up is a pleasure; as she matures into a woman with a strong adherence to responsibility, she never loses her spirit or her sense of fun. She is, in fact, perfect for Richard, helping tease him out of his intense, serious moods. The chemistry between them is both emotionally charged and very sensual.
My only problem with The Marriage Bed is Dain’s tendency to use repetition to emphasize how her characters feel. Passages like “He wanted her. It was his shame” are repeated much more frequently than necessary for me to get the point. The pacing of the book is a little uneven, too – the balancing act between flashbacks and current events is tricky and a bit uncertain. However, I very much liked how we very slowly learn that there is a reason for Richard’s obsessed denial of his own desires. The way this all pans out is strange from the modern point of view, but makes sense from the perspective of the world into which Dain has successfully immersed us.
For an unusual, sensual story set in a very believable medieval world, I strongly recommend The Marriage Bed. This is an author to watch.