The Winter Queen
If I were grading The Winter Queen on the setting alone, it would get an unqualified A. It’s set in 1564, and the heroine is one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting. Better yet, all the action takes place during the Christmas season (from shortly before the holiday to Twelfth Night). And, McCabe researched Elizabethan Christmas customs. It’s a history geek’s dream. It has some issues, but the setting is so delightful – and different – that it’s almost worth reading for that alone.
Lady Rosamund Ramsay is sent to be Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting because of a romantic entanglement with a neighbor. Her parents think Richard is a poor match for their daughter, so they send her to court in the hopes that she will grow up and forget about him. Their plan succeeds fairly quickly. Rosamund is pulled into court intrigues, and must spend time learning court ways; she can tell she’s in a little over her head. Fortunately, she makes a friend, Anne Percy, who shows her how to navigate through the political and social plotting – and how to avoid the queen’s temper.
Rosamund actually comes upon the hero, Anton Gustavson, before she even arrives at Whitehall Palace. She catches a glimpse of him skating, and is mesmerized. But when he spots her, she runs like a scared rabbit. They are surprised to encounter each other at court. Anton is there as part of a Swedish delegation, whose stated goal is to convince the queen to marry their somewhat crazy monarch. But his visit has a dual purpose; he also wants the queen to approve his inheritance. Anton’s mother was English, and his grandfather left him an English manor, but the will has been contested by his cousins.
Anton and Rosamund move rather quickly into a relationship. What starts with shy glances soon proceeds to kisses, stolen moments, and a rendezvous. The romance is spurred along by a wager: Anton contends that he cannot dance, and the queen believes that he can learn by Twelfth Night if has has an able teacher (Rosamund). But Anton has no intention of marrying; his political and financial goals are important to him. Rosamund feels somewhat differently, but she also knows that the queen does not like her ladies to marry – particularly without her permission. Meanwhile, danger lurks among the merry celebrations, and it looks like someone is plotting to harm the queen.
The setting is, quite simply, the bomb. Maybe someone else has done the Elizabethan court at Christmastime, but I’ve never seen it, and any Elizabethan romance is fairly hard to come by. The research is meticulous, and I loved all the details about the clothes, food, and celebrations. They even visit a frost fair, which actually took place in that exact year because the Thames was cold enough to freeze over. This is a book with a firm sense of time and place, and I’d love to see more like it.
In keeping with all of this, Rosamund is fairly innocent – and she knows it. In some ways, I found this refreshing. Sophisticates are in vogue, and I’ve read many a worldly-wise heroine in recent years. It was nice to see a heroine who knew she had some things to learn about life. She even acknowledges that her parents knew what they were talking about when they told her marrying Richard would be a bad idea.
However, there’s innocence, and then there’s stupidity. And sometimes I felt that Rosamund wandered into stupid territory. When she seemed innocent and careful in other ways, it seemed unrealistic to me that she would sleep with Anton. Without a marriage proposal forthcoming. When she knew that at least one of the queen’s ladies had been sent to the tower, pregnant and in disgrace. With the stakes so high, the cavalier way in which Rosamund surrendered her virginity seemed bit jarring. Since Anton was a little more experienced, a little gentlemanly behavior on his part would have gone a long way. But this came a bit too late for my tastes.
Still, Elizabethan court! Christmastime! That alone made the book worthwhile for me, and I found that I enjoyed it enough to overlook the heroine’s silliness. If you’re a history fan with a taste for different settings, I’d encourage you to give The Winter Queen a try.