Desert Isle Keeper
The Mistress of Normandy (aka The Lily and the Leopard)
Everyone who reads historical romance has a favorite period that they love time-warping back to again and again. Mine happens to be the medieval period.
I have a good handful of keepers that I always go back to when I want to revisit the era. Some are well-worn (the entirety of the Rosalynde Chronicles; Julie Garwood’s Saving Grace and Gentle Warrior) others are newer (Jill Barnett’s Wicked/Wild/Wonderful trilogy). But my favorite example of the genre is definitely the perfectly researched and heartbreakingly romantic The Mistress of Normandy by Susan Wiggs, which was originally published in 1991 as The Lily and the Leopard.
Taking place in and around France and England in 1414/15, the novel concerns Rand Fitzmarc, who is rewarded for his loyal service to Henry V with a French barony. The title of Longwood comes with a price, however – he’s to marry the orphaned Lianna Bois-Long, mistress of Longwood, who is extremely loyal to the French cause. Rand, who has long ignored the romantic arts in favor of warfare, nevertheless sets sail in the hope of holding both the castle and Lianna.
Lianna is absolutely furious with her new lot in life. Independent, intelligent, stubborn, and good at what she does, as chatelaine of Bois-Long she runs the castle with a firm hand, and is particularly proud of her gunnery, where war-master Chiang has begun to experiment with an explosive that she’s certain will bring the never-ending war between France and England to a conclusion that will favor the French side. So intense is her need to keep Longwood a French holding that she marries an elderly nobleman before Rand makes landfall and their betrothal can be forged. Lianna soon learns that her new husband Lazare has an ulterior motive for uniting with a stranger half his age – instead of lying with Lianna and creating a child who will inherit the title and land when he dies, Lazare intends to make his adult son, Gervais, the new heir of Longwood – which means not touching his new wife to ensure that the title reverts to his son on his death.
When a newly-arrived Rand comes upon the desperate Lianna brooding in a glen outside of Longwood, the two are instantly attracted to one another. A tender courtship begins, though neither reveals their true identity, each assuming the encounters between them will be a warm, fleeting memory once the cold reality of their loveless marriages set in. Lianna soon realizes that Rand is her key to conceiving an heir and keeping Longwood, but their happy carnal encounters soon lead them to discover that the enemy they thought they despised is in fact their greatest ally.
It’s a hallmark of excellent authorship when a writer can make tropes you’d normally turn your nose up at seem like heaven on earth, and Wiggs does this in spades in this book. Lianna is as stubborn as a stone wall but the author makes her so sympathetic, makes it so clear that her personal identity is intensely wed to the French cause due to the fact she has no other tie to her late parents, that it’s impossible not to understand her iron control and the push-pull between love of country and love of Rand that defines her. Perhaps she does take too long to finally come around to supporting Rand in his defence of the castle, but I found her development to be quite realistic in the end.
And Rand is my favorite romance hero of all time – patient, tender, vulnerable, and yet a brutally efficient though not cruel warrior. He’s as complex a person as Lianna.
For all of Lianna’s bouts of frantic immaturity, there’s still much to love in all of the varying stages of courtship she stumbles through with Rand. There’s the sweet, almost innocent courtship in the woods; the intellectual, intriguing way they struggle their way toward marriage; their lives as parents – all have different, interesting, emotionally involving ways to make you laugh or cry.
I adored the secondary characters, especially Lianna’s cheerful maid Bonne and Jack Cade, who joins up with Rand’s band of men and soon falls in love with Bonnie, and the brilliant Chiang. The historical detail feels quite rich as well.
The Mistress of Normandy manages to combine everything I adore about historical romance into a single compact package: two strong personalities who learn to yield and make a life together made of passion and caring, strong writing, impeccable research and sense of detail.