01 January 2008

Book Review: The Goldsmith's Wife by Jean Plaidy

Armchair Traveller Reading Challenge #6

The Goldsmith’s Wife The goldsmith’s wife starts out a mere mercer’s daughter, one whose extraordinary beauty quickly begins to get her into trouble. Anxious to see her become the responsibility of someone else, her father pushes her into marriage with the eminently respectable Will Shore. Married, Jane will be safe from scoundrels like Hastings, a courtier who had plans for her that didn’t include asking her permission. But outgoing, outspoken Jane chafes under the dull routine of being a respectable wife, and after only a few years of marriage leaves her husband in favour of another man: King Edward IV. Her wit and good heart make her the darling of both the court and the public; and coached by Elizabeth Woodville (who accepts her husband’s affairs as the price of her throne) she secures her position as Edward’s favourite mistress, to whom he always returns. But nothing lasts forever, not even kings. After Edward’s death Jane knows she should retire from court life, but can’t bear to leave - not when the court includes the late king’s stepson, Dorset - and an older and wiser Hastings. She also knows she shouldn’t meddle; but when the position of young Edward V is threatened, she can’t help herself, even if it means going against the coldly practical Richard III.

I had never heard of Jane Shore before reading this book. Her rise and fall make a remarkable story - all the more so because she lasted so long at court, despite a notoriously fickle king and a tendency to interfere. She could be the model for the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, for all her meddling was done with the very best of intentions and for other people’s sakes. In some cases she was almost too soft-hearted; if she could only have ignored the princes in the tower she might have ended her days happily. But then she wouldn’t have been Jane. Her kindness made her likeable, but she also came across as rather foolish; following her heart when her head was offering by far the wisest choice and always thinking that there would be someone to provide for her and better days ahead. She was also, for someone so willful, very susceptible to domineering men and prone to doing whatever they asked of her - even treason.

The flaws of the main character, even when added to a few melodramatic moments, couldn’t detract too much from the opportunity of discovering a new piece of history. It was not only Jane’s story, but that of the court itself during the transition from the newly-restored Edward IV to the takeover by Henry VII. The most interesting figure was Richard of Gloucester; I’m always curious to see how an author will portray one of the most infamous of English kings. Very well, in this case; not the monster of Shakespeare, but a sober man devoted to England but with no clue how to win the affections of its people. Not a murderer, either; a different explanation is offered for the disappearance of the two princes (though still not one to top that in Elizabeth George’s story I, Richard).

You do need some knowledge of fifteenth-century history going in; there are no dates given and it took a few dozen pages for me to calculate that it opened c. 1469. It also makes it easy to spot the foreshadowing, which if you know what’s coming takes on a tint of irony. And one thing puzzles me: near the end of the book, one of the princes was looking forward to the prospect of a reunion with someone who, I’m quite sure, died before they were imprisoned. Surely he would have known? Or am I getting my dates muddled?

Rating: B

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776