Mills & Boon, £4.99, ISBN 978-0-263-90946-3
Historical Romance, 2014
In the 1300s, Joan of Kent married the younger Edward of Woodstock, then the Prince of Wales, in a secret ceremony witnessed by her lady-in-waiting Anne of Stamford. The marriage is made possible through a generous exchange of bribes and favors with the Pope, as Joan’s previous marriages were quite convoluted in a way, and she and Edward might be too closely related for comfort. Dragged into this affair is Sir Nicholas Lovayne, a knight who initially assumes that his job is done when he sends the Pope’s missive back to the royal family, only to be told that he has to then fulfill the Church’s request to find evidence that Joan’s previous marriages were fully in order, legal, and properly ended in order for Edward to properly wed her.
Anne holds a secret related to one of Joan’s past marriages, and it really won’t do to get too close to Nicholas, the one man who can ruin her mistress’s happiness. But you know how things can be sometimes.
You know, Secrets at Court has all the ingredients that will make me happy: genuine political shenanigans, polished narrative, and history that at first doesn’t seem like wallpaper decoration. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take me long to become bored by the whole thing.
One reason for this is that the most interesting element of this story is the relationship between Joan and Edward, with all the potential drama it carries. Unfortunately, the bulk of this story, especially the oh-my-god sagging-like-I’m-85 middle which focuses bizarrely on Anne whining that she has a club foot and hence she will never be loved, plus she and Nicholas will never be because of all kinds of reasons. Of course, Nicholas will say that she is beautiful even as she whines that she resembles the soiled rear end of a bulldog with food poisoning, so big swathes of the story resemble eye-rolling drama in which the heroine acts up just for the author to fish for assurances and compliments on behalf of the heroine from the reader. Yes, Anne, you really are beautiful, and yes, Anne, someone loves you, and please don’t move as I push you down the stairs myself, you boring gerbil.
And that’s another reason why I’m bored: Anne. The author sticks to the tried-and-tested routine of making Anne a goody-goody heroine, all the better to appeal to romance readers, and our heroine comes off as a vapid bag of self-esteem issues as a result. Oops, she is too nice and kind and loyal to Joan, so she has never really considered the ramifications of keeping Joan’s secret. And when the secret threatens to come out, our heroine starts trying to be a superhero, wanting the secret to be kept in the closet for the sake of all those kids out there that will be harmed by the exposure. She is also a dreadfully passive heroine, either resigned to being miserable or determined to play the martyr, rarely doing anything to make things better in the process. Nicholas has to be the one to make things happen in this story, as if we depend on Anne to do anything, we’d still be waiting by the time the ice caps melt. She’d still be sitting there, waiting for Joan to give her orders to do something.
Sure, the author gives has Anne realize late in the story that, in a way, she is letting her club foot define what she is, but her epiphany doesn’t bring about any significant character development. Everything is just lip service to character development – Anne is still the same drab, passive, boring heifer that she was before that moment of truth.
I am also not pleased by the author doing her best to inject historical details, but at the same time ignore historical norms and behavior just to appease romance readers with more modern sensibilities. Here, Joan is portrayed as a widow with two marriages because she… was lusty and horny. Come on, am I to believe that a young lady of noble birth back in those days has any say in which man she weds? But no, Joan is horny, so she wants that man, and then she wants this man, no wait, she’s horny for that man again… what is the point of all this, other than some contrived eye-rolling device to make the heroine look “better” in the process? Anne is portrayed as the “better” woman compared to her mistress because she is resigned to being loveless when she feels like it, never doing anything to rock the boat, aside from the usual putting out to the hero without thinking of potential consequences, because that’s what all virtuous women do: get horny, justify their horny need for the pee-pee as true love, and then contrive to have sex without wanting to seem too “greedy” like wanting the hero to marry them.
Nicholas has a penis, so he’s allowed to be more pragmatic without having to conform to some rigid code of acceptable conduct. Frankly, I’m on his side most of the time because the author, in her efforts to make Anne like your typical goody-goody heroine, makes that poor dear vapid, silly, or naïve – sometimes all three at once – instead. And heaven knows I can’t stand such traits.
As I turn the pages, feeling increasingly bored, I fantasize about the kind of story this one could have been if Anne had been a pragmatic, cunning ally to Joan, keeping her mistress’s secret because of her own employment and also because her role allows her some degree of power in a time when women didn’t have much say over their destiny. Or if Joan had been portrayed as a pragmatic woman who did her best to make the most out of her past two marriages, gaining some degree of power in the process – she may love Edward, but she’s also smart enough to know that she has to break a few rules to be with that man, and this knowledge is not portrayed as a villainous trait unfit for a “good” woman. And then I wish I hadn’t fantasized like that, because it makes this story seem even more lacking as a result.
Anyway, Secrets at Court is what it is: a story that pretends to be all about historical authenticity when what it actually is is another tale of a passive, whiny martyr doing her best to sabotage her own life in the name of being a “virtuous” woman, and is rewarded for it when the hero deigns to make the happy ending happen for the two of them. A little bit of history, but even more about the romance novel purity test for acceptable romance heroines. It’s not my thing, so I’m closing this book to move on to livelier things.