I have a big soft spot for historical fiction, especially stories set in medieval England. I can never get enough of the court intrigue, backstabbing royal courtiers, and the excesses of the kings and queens. I have a particular fondness for stories that are told from the point of view of an outsider, someone who manages to get pulled into the royal orbit and has to adjust to a life they don’t want to live and were never prepared for. In this case, Alice Perrers is that outsider. Debut author Emma Campion takes a little known mistress to a king and elevates her story --- with a lot of embellishments for the fiction lovers, of course --- to one that is really fascinating.
Alice Salisbury is a young girl when she meets and falls in love with her future husband, Janyn Perrers. It’s an arranged marriage, but Alice and Janyn do find much love together, and Alice, young and naive as she is, thinks herself blessed and content, happy to live out her days married to a wealthy merchant. Unfortunately for Alice, Janyn’s loved ones harbor a secret that will tear the small, happy family apart and cause a lot heartache that will not end even when the secret that was kept from Alice is revealed.
Janyn’s family has connections to the Dowager Queen Isabella, mother of Edward III, and a woman full of secrets, lies, and the ability to ruin lives. For Alice, this relationship that entranced her and then quickly scared her becomes a shackle. When her much loved husband disappears, she finds that a price has been put on her head and soon becomes a pawn of the royal household. A daughter and wife of a merchant, she is lost at court unable to decipher small gestures that mean so much and not able, and sometimes unwilling, to make and keep friends. She does, however, manage to foster a relationship with Queen Philippa, the wife of Edward III, which becomes her grounding force in the hectic court.
Alice’s relationship with the Queen keeps her safe, but she is unprepared for the role for which she is being groomed --- she is to become the mistress of Edward III. Alice doesn’t go willingly to the King’s bed and finds that her attraction and love for the King scare her. She eventually gives in fully and becomes lost in her all-consuming love for Edward. The relationship, which she had hoped would stay quiet, puts her in even more danger than she ever imagined. She decides that while she may not have control of her own life, she will use her position to make a stable and safe life for her children, and in the process, becomes a rich landowner, a position that many people at court do not care for. After the death of the King, Alice finds no reprieve but only more fight ahead of her, and, all pretenses of naivety gone, she starts once more to claim her life.
It is obvious that Campion knows her subject and time period extraordinarily well. The details she sprinkles throughout the novel are rich and draw you into the world that Alice inhabits. The court scandals, murderous plots, love affairs and extravagant parties move the story along, making you wonder how one person could find so much love and pain in the same life. While THE KING’S MISTRESS is fiction, the real-life Alice Perrers would probably have been entertained by the tale Campion weaves.
This is a heavy read, though. While Campion has obviously done her research, there were times when the details felt too overwhelming and slowed the story down a bit. The excesses of the royal family and descriptions of cloth and clothing sometimes brought the novel to a halt. Fortunately, the plot has more than enough going for it to overcome the details, and Alice makes a fine character to follow. For lovers of historical fiction, this has a bit of everything to enjoy.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on January 22, 2011