Forsaking All Other
We have a guest review for you all! This review comes from Claudia. Thanks, Claudia!
At sixteen, Claudia found her older cousin’s stash of Barbara Cartlands and assorted Harlequin-type romance housed in an old sewing cabinet and life was never the same! Claudia loves history, so she mostly reads historical romance. Favorite authors include Meredith Duran, Mary Balogh, Miranda Neville, Elizabeth Kingston, and Rose Lerner.
Elizabeth (Bess) Stoughton is a widow and a lady-in-waiting to Lady Allingbourne. She is recently called to her childhood home, where she finds out that her father is plotting to marry her to a much older, repulsive neighbor in order to regain a plot of land he had sold to that man under duress.
Bess’s husband’s family cheated her out of her widow portion so she’s in a very precarious situation and lucky to be part of Lady’s Allingbourne’s retinue (where she served before her marriage). In addition to being old enough to be her grandfather, her intended is also a perv: he has his eyes on Bess’ much younger half sister and mentions the girl is “welcome” to live with them once they marry.
Up to that point Bess has done pretty much whatever her father told her to, including marrying her first husband, but she’s slowly coming into her own and realizing that there’s no way she could go through this second marriage, no matter the implications for her family. She also knows what would happen if she got her pre-teen half sister near the guy.
So she does a very atypical thing: she runs away from her father’s house, disguised as a boy so as to be safer on the road back to Lady Allingbourne’s manor.
Meanwhile, our hero Edmund Wyard is just back in England from a campaign in Ireland. He has distinguished himself, got awarded property in return, but he’s shaken by what he witnessed in in the skirmishes there.
Edmund is a second son, but, in addition to his new Irish holdings, he’s a man of property in England as he inherited a manor and lands from his recently deceased father. His mother pushes him to find a wife, and to that end she tells him to visit Lady Allingbourne’s house, where young people are congregating to celebrate the impending betrothal of one of the other young ladies in waiting, Bess’ best friend.
He goes there mostly to get his mother off his back. He’s not really thinking of getting married because he promised the Earl of Leicester (the real-life Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s favorite) he would join the earl’s forces to fight the Spanish in the Netherlands.
So Bess and Edmund meet on the road, just a few hours from the house, and Edmund shows a bit of his soft side as he wants to give the “boy” some advice about traveling alone.
As a widow with no independent means, basically living off Lady Allingbourne’s largesse, Bess is several rungs below Edmund in the social ladder so while she’s attracted to him from the start, she thinks nothing can come of it. He’s attracted to her as well but the timing is off with his impending trip to aid the Dutch.
Bess has no independence, no money, and she’s older than most of the other ladies in waiting and very fearful about her future. She finally writes to her father to say she’ll try to find a suitable husband in one year; if not, she’ll come back home and marry the old man he wants her to.
Most of the characters are “well born” members of the upper class, but are mere sirs and ladies, no titles. As far as I could tell, none of the characters were people of color. Both MCs are described as non-gorgeous. In fact, the first description we get about the hero is that he’s stocky and his face is pockmarked. He’s also gruff and taciturn, but in several key occasions he’s shown as a caring person just hardened by war.
The author describes herself as a writer of historical fiction with romance elements. This usually makes me wary: more often than not, I either miss a stronger romantic connection or find the historical fiction lacking in depth. This book struck a nice balance, however, and I’d say it skews toward romance. Sex is of the fade-to-black variety. I wish the author would have shown more passion between the MCs, and more of what made them right for each other.
The book also captures the McCarthy Era-like atmosphere involving Catholic (or “papist”) plots and persecution in the middle of Elizabeth I’s reign. I had to brush up on that history, and sure enough the time period covered in the book (1585-86) is just a couple of years away from the very real threat that the Spanish Armada would successfully invade England and revert it to Catholicism, and not that many years away from the Gunpowder Plot (of Guy Fawkes’ fame — 1605.)
I had to look up seemingly mundane things too, much to my delight. For instance: One of the young ladies in waiting complains about having to do “blackwork,” which turned out to be a kind of embroidery (black silk floss on white cloth) popular during Tudor/Elizabethan times. If you look closely at some of the portraits of the era, you see blackwork decorating cuffs, hems, collars, etc. There’s also a lovely description of May Day festivities.
Bess is shown as slowly becoming her own person, noticing how much harder her life is versus the life of a man. At some point she tells Edmunds that if she were a man of property, there would be no way she would do what her parents dictate, and she doesn’t come across as preachy. It really made me think about the many limitations of people in that age and now, women in particular. We see other ladies in waiting also living precarious existences, and Bess is luckier than most since Lady Allingbourne genuinely cares for her.
I won’t spoil the second half of the book but suffice to say Bess goes through some pretty bleak moments because of the anti Catholic undertow, and thanks also to Edmund’s mother who turns out to be the main villain. It got pretty intense at times as Bess was completely defenseless and very nearly disappears into the void. I had to hold on tight to the implicit promise of a HEA.
Edmund and Bess finally come to an understanding midway through the book, and it’s frankly refreshing that they don’t take 90% of the book to figure out they are right for each other, and also that there’s not much hand-wringing once that’s established.
External factors still keep them apart, and as much as I was critical of Edmund’s decision to keep certain things on the down low, he was proven right as it was then that his mother’s villany fully emerges (she’s enraged he would marry below his station). Edmund also could not have foreseen the turn of events that resulted in Bess almost being swallowed whole by the religious and political fervor of the time.
For its lovely prose, well-done weaving of historic elements, and satisfying love story, this book gets an A minus from me. Readers who enjoy their historical romance with substantial detail, don’t mind the quieter pace, and want some variety in terms of time period and setting would greatly enjoy this book.