The Rose at Twilight
A Rose at Twilight is one of many historical romance titles from decades past which have been reissued by Open Road Media in digital formats. This re-issue of a title originally published in 1992 is set shortly after the Battle of Bosworth, which saw the demise of King Richard III and the ascent of Henry Tudor to the English throne.
The heroine, Lady Alys Wolverston, is on her way home in the aftermath of upheaval. Having been brought up in the household of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Alys is a die-hard Yorkist and has nothing but scorn for Henry the usurper and those families who had betrayed Richard on the battlefield. The problem is that she has never learned to keep her own counsel and frequently expresses herself without thinking — never a wise thing to do when the political situation is in flux and there are so many adjustments to be made.
At the beginning of the story, Alys is travelling to her home but is waylaid by a troop of soldiers under the command of the handsome Welshman, Sir Nicholas Merrion. As he is loyal to Henry, he and Alys naturally do not see eye to eye and she is not at all hesitant to make her opinions of Henry and his followers known to anyone who will listen.
As a member of a well-known Yorkist family, Alys is to be brought to Henry in London and put under his wardship until he decides her fate, which will probably mean she will be married off to one of his supporters.
Nicholas and Alys are immediately igniting sparks with their antagonism. She is adamant that she much reach Wolveston, regardless of the fact that Nicholas informs her that most of the inhabitants of the estate and surrounding village have been struck down by a virulent sweating sickness. She has not seen her father in years – the custom for the children of the nobility was that they were “fostered” by other noble families and Alys spent most of her youth with the Gloucesters – but when Nicholas makes a comment about two of her brothers which she knows to be false, she is even more determined to see her father and find out the truth.
I confess, I frequently found Alys’ attitude to be either too modern, too annoying, or both. I realize that having her behave as women at that time were expected to, and to submit without question to whatever the men told her to do, would not have made for a very interesting story. But she is stupidly stubborn at times, and her actions sometimes lead her into situations in which others must risk themselves in order to extricate her. At this point in the story, despite having been warned against it several times, she sneaks away from Merrion’s camp and into her father’s apartments, only to find him ravaged with the sickness. He dies while she is there and she does not find the information she seeks; and then she becomes gravely ill. She recovers, but not before she has infected her faithful maidservant Jonet. To be fair to Alys, she is distraught – but I can’t help thinking she should have listened to Nicholas in the first place!
When they reach London, Alys is assigned to wait upon the Lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward and soon-to-be wife to Henry. One thing I found unusual about this book was the characterization of Elizabeth. In most of the other books in which she appears that I’ve read, Elizabeth is portrayed as a gentle, serene woman, but in this one she shows an unpleasant side. She and Alys don’t like each other, and Elizabeth often goes out of her way to be downright nasty to Alys. I’m not saying either portrayal is right or wrong – I just found it interesting that it was so different to the way she’s normally written.
Henry informs Alys that she is to marry Lord Briarly, a member of the Stanley family who so thoroughly betrayed Richard at Bosworth. Of course, that alone is enough to horrify her, but Briarly is also nearing sixty and is looking for a brood mare rather than a wife. Alys has known all her life that she would have no say in the matter of her marriage and as the king’s ward, knows she has to alternative but to accept his choice.
But her fortunes are about to change. Her eldest brother Roger dies suddenly, leaving Alys the sole heiress of a large estate and fortune. In a rather novel move for the time, Henry wanted to distribute the wealth and power of his nobles rather than have it all concentrated in just a few hands, and so Alys finds herself married not to Briarly but to Nicholas Merrion, in reward for his loyal service to his king.
Already very much attracted to him, Alys is not overly dismayed, but their relationship remains a tempestuous one, with Alys’ blatant dislike of the new king and her unruly tongue frequently leading to discord between them. And it’s not just that – some of the things she says are bordering on treasonous, and yet knowing that, she still makes no effort to curb her tongue, at least in public.
It’s clear that Nicholas is more than fond of her, although she cannot be sure if she is merely the wife who was conveniently attached to a large parcel of land and a fortune; but her constant carping about Henry and Nicholas’ misplaced loyalties would try the patience of a saint. At one point, when she contradicts her husband and belittles him in front of his men, he threatens to beat her for her disobedience – and I can’t say as I blame him. I wanted to slap her about a bit myself!
Needless to say, Nicholas isn’t your typical medieval husband who would have exercised his legal right to beat his wife and he finds another way to punish Alys – by making her apologize publicly to him and everyone else.
The novel closes with the defeat of the rebellion against Henry in which a young man called Lambert Simnel claimed to be the Earl of Warwick, son of George, Duke of Clarence, the younger brother of Edward IV. Despite her Yorkist leanings, Alys has come to respect Henry (who, in the novel, is presented as an intelligent, shrewd man with a dry sense of humor) and learning of the plot to kill him by attacking his position at the rear of his army, she finally admits that while she might not like the fact he took the throne from Richard, Henry is better for the country than any young puppet-king would be. She is also terrified that Nicholas could be killed in the fighting, and realizing that it is too late to send a messenger, sets off herself to find her husband and warn him of the plot.
This is an era of history that has long fascinated me, and I thought that the novel was well researched and supplied enough background detail to spark the readers’ interest while not turning into a history lesson. The writing is good, although I felt that having the story seen solely from the heroine’s point of view meant that the hero was sidelined and that we never got to know very much about him and his motivations. That said, however, he was affectionate towards Alys and showed a lot of patience when she insisted on throwing her Yorkist loyalties in his face, and was even willing to admit that he understood their importance to her, even though he could never share them.
I also found the pacing to be rather uneven. The opening chapters which detail the first encounters between Alys and Nicholas and their journey to London were very engaging, but I felt that the pace slackened off as soon as they reached their destination. One reason for this could be that, given Nicholas’ position as one of Henry’s most trusted knights, he and Alys spent large chunks of the story apart; and I thought that once they were both present, the pace picked up until their next separation. It’s not that there was nothing else happening – this was a time of great change and there was always intrigue and politicking – but none of that usually involved women whose situation in life usually rendered them passive and reactive to events.
I was pleased that the author did not have Alys suddenly become a fervent Lancastrian at the end, because that would have been too implausible. Instead, Alys comes to realize that blindly supporting a cause is not necessarily a noble thing to do and that sometimes it’s important to consider the smaller as well as the bigger picture. She also – at last! – understand the need to curb her tongue and exercise caution as to what she says and in whose presence she says it.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite my reservations about the heroine. It was well-written as well as being informative, eventful and engaging; and even though I consider myself a Ricardian, I nonetheless liked the author’s portrayal of Henry Tudor as a man trying to do the best to unite a country almost overwhelmed by internal strife.