A shy fifteen-year old girl fresh from a convent meets a good-looking young knight some nine years her senior. He is a “verray parfait gentil knight” to quote Chaucer, chivalrous and gentle, but also a first-rate general. She is a luminous beauty who makes heads turn. They fall in love, but cannot marry because their families are engaged in a brutal struggle.
If this sounds familiar it is because this true story of Lady Isobel Ingoldsthorpe and Sir John Neville (later Lord Montagu) is a possible basis for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Of interest to English and North American readers is that the youngest child of this union, Lady Lucy Neville, was the ancestress of both Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It is not easy to write a novel of the War of the Roses; there is too much information and the challenge is not only to choose carefully but also to weave it into the story in such a way that the reader does not become bored. This well-crafted novel takes us from 1456 – just after the outbreak of war – until the Battle of Barnet in 1471 with an epilogue that takes place in 1476. Sandra Worth achieves the feat of describing 20 years of petty quarrels and brutal struggle by carefully braiding that story with the love-story about John and Isobel. Another benefit of this technique is the many beautifully described details of medieval life, which make you feel you are sitting right there along with the characters.
This is not to say that the novel is without problems. Not much is known about Lady Isobel, but one thing stands out starkly for those of us with a realistic turn of mind: According to Ms. Worth, Lady Isobel had seven children in eight years.
We no longer live in a society where women give birth to children in rapid succession, so it is hard to imagine the physical ravages. The sad truth is that far from remaining the luminous beauty she was at seventeen – as Ms Worth would have it – Lady Isobel probably became a painfully thin, exhausted woman who was missing a few teeth by the time she was twenty-five.
I mention this because there is one glaring anachronism in this novel that would have us believe Lady Isobel never tired of having her husband in her bed. Given how repeated pregnancies ruined their health, it is more likely that medieval ladies breathed a sigh of relief when their husbands were not around to bother them.
However, if you are a reader with a romantic turn of mind who would like to know more about the real story behind Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, this book would make the perfect gift.
–Cynthia Haggard writes short stories, novels and poetry. During the day, she is a medical writer and owns her own business. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. For more about her medical writing services, go to clarifyingconcepts. (c) 2009. All rights reserved.