To the Castle
Looking for a medieval romance with historical accuracy and characters who belong in their time? Joan Wolf delivers in satisfying fashion with To the Castle.
Eleanor de Bonevile, daughter to the Earl of Lincoln, was raised in a convent and is set to take her vows when she turns eighteen in six month’s time. When her sister Sybilla dies, Nell is brought home and forced to step into her sister’s life. She is given Sybilla’s room, Sybilla’s clothes are remade for her and most importantly, Nell is expected to marry Sybilla’s fiancé. Nell is quite distraught at leaving the convent and losing the only home and family she’s known, and the idea of marrying a man when she was committed to become a Bride of Christ is anathema to her, but she has no choice.
Twenty-two year old Roger de Roche is the grandson and heir to the powerful Earl of Wiltshire. Through this marriage, the combined power, lands and fortunes of the earls of Lincoln and Wiltshire will, after their deaths, be second only to King Stephen’s.
This is a time a great conflict; England is on the brink of Civil War as King Stephen faces an invasion from the forces of his cousin Matilda. The barons are divided as to whom to support and each is looking to bolster their own positions. King Stephen allows the marriage between the houses of Lincoln and Wiltshire in order to keep both earls happy and all their power on his side.
While Roger is not thrilled to be hustled into marriage, he is willing – and very relieved to find that Nell is quite pretty. He is also prepared to be patient with her and, knowing that she is still more nun than wife with no knowledge of men, offers to wait to become friends before consummating their vows. Roger is your basic Good Guy.
Both Roger and Nell are very young, sometimes painfully so, and both are tested through family crises and political events. They turn to each other to get through these challenges, finding in each other a friend and ally, grateful to not be alone.
This is a slow-moving story, but never dull. The steps Roger and Nell take to friendship and emotional intimacy, and then later physical intimacy, are well-choreographed and, for the most part, believably done. Nell has the greatest growth arc; it is a long way from a cloistered life to learning to run a castle, trusting a man and discovering her own sexuality – something which was never even within the realm of her existence prior to her marriage.
I would have liked Nell and Roger to have confronted her fears of the physical side of marriage more quickly than they did, for their inability to do so led to one of my few complaints about the book. This is getting into Spoiler Territory, but knowing how very strongly many readers feel about this subject matter, I feel I need to mention it. Roger, frustrated with Nell’s continued pleas to postpone consummation, visits his former mistress and has one quick, guilt-ridden encounter with her. I felt this adulterous episode to be unnecessary, especially as Roger and Nell then consummate that very night. It just seemed thrown into the mix, and was not essential to the story, but is something which is guaranteed to anger some readers.
I find this era fascinating, and the political maneuvering was interesting to read. This is definitely not a wallpaper history novel; the events and machinations of Stephen and Matilda have a direct impact on Roger and Nell’s lives. Once in a while, the history was in danger of overpowering the romance, but for the most part, I found the balance to be quite good. The role of religion in the lives of the characters felt accurate to me as well. These weren’t 21st century characters plopped down into the Middle Ages. Nell, though not a nun, still has a very strong religious foundation to her way of thinking and dealing with problems. Though some may find the religious aspects present in To the Castle too much for them, I found it to be accurate to the time, this character and a refreshing change from the usual.
This is a strong read, with believable characters who grow and adapt to each other as well as their time and place.