The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick
St Martin’s Press, 1st US edition, 2000
Genre: historical fiction, romance
Synopsis & Review: Miriel Weaver is driven from her home by an unpleasant stepfather and her complaisant mother. Rather than deal with the headstrong girl, she is sent to the convent of St Catherine’s as an oblate, and there she will stay until she takes vows. Miserable and chafing under the convent’s strict rules, Miriel plots escape. Meanwhile, young Nicholas de Caen is a rebel prisoner attached to King John’s baggage train as it makes its way to Lincoln. After a delay in crossing the causeway across the marshes, the baggage train is swept away by the incoming tide. Nicholas manages to save both a chest of riches and himself from drowning, but is quickly lost in the marshlands. It is there that Miriel stumbles across him, and he is removed to St Catherine’s to recover under Miriel’s care.
When Nicholas leaves, Miriel goes with him, determined to escape convent life. Following him through the marshlands, she discovers his secret hoard and demands a share for her help in saving his life. The two strike an agreement and travel together—until Miriel absconds with some of the monies and a priceless treasure.
The monies she uses to establish herself as a young widow, and Miriel soon has a thriving business in the cloth trade. She soon finds herself married to an old gentleman for protection, and upon his death marries another—though this one is only twenty years her senior. Largely unhappy in her marriages, and certainly emotionally unfulfilled, Miriel makes do until Nicholas de Caen, now a wealthy boat master, re-enters her life. It is only a matter of time before Miriel and Nicholas must confront their shared pasts–and the realization that they are bound together. Only Miriel’s husband Robert Willoughbuy stands in their way, and they will soon discover that he brooks no interference in his life, and will do anything to have his own way, even murder.
I’m really quite astonished that I never before happened upon one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books. Looking over her titles, I don’t see any that ring a bell, but it’s such a surprise that someone who has been reading historical fiction and romance as long as I have wouldn’t have ever encountered her. I’ve seen her and her books referenced numerous times on various blogs, and after reading Sharon Kay Penman’s high opinion of Chadwick, decided it was time to check her out for myself.
I liked the title of The Marsh King’s Daughter, having done a seminar on HC Andersen before, and was interested in the tenuous connexion to King John (I’m just waiting for his renascence and rehabilitation!). Like Andersen’s wonder tale, Chadwick’s novel is a leisurely meditation on redemption, duty, and the nature of love. Miriel, like Helga before her, struggles with temper and unacceptable behavior, and also finds herself a captive of her own nature in her two marriages, particularly the second. As she matures, she tries to balance duty with desire, learning to walk the fine line. She even becomes willing to sacrifice her own desires at times for the benefit of another. When Nicholas comes back into her life, her struggles begin all over again, and it takes until nearly the end of the novel for Miriel to master herself and for the two of them to be redeemed through love.
The story was good, engaging and interesting–I read it in one day, after all–but the best aspect of the novel was the history. Chadwick vividly recreates medieval England, and with fascinating information on the wool trade, no less. I’m especially partial to reading about trade and economy in my historical fiction, and those sections were marvelous. Also excellent were the characters, none of whom were anachronistic, but instead were products of their times. Miriel acts within the scope of her world and place in it; though she is often exceptional, she is still part of her culture and acts accordingly. Like Penman, Chadwick nicely and subtly illustrates differences in culture between then and now, and how they affect the perceptions and actions of her characters. Though the romance was essential to the story, the narrative was driven by history and characters.
It was a curiously unmemorable book in some ways, and reading it was a very transitory experience. The ending also happened very quickly, and seemed a bit contrived. But it was good reading, and I will be checking more out from the library to try.
Cover: Miriel’s face over the baggage train, and then the Empress’ crown lying in the march in the extreme foreground. It’s okay, nothing very memorable. A bit cluttered.
Read also: Sharon Kay Penman, To Dance with Kings or Banners of Silk by Rosalind Laker, Katherine by Anya Seton, A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley
Or she could marry him. Give him a husband’s rights over her person and property. Miriel buried her head in the darkness created by her arms and the bright blanket. He was old, past three score at least. The thought of sharing a bed with him made her recoil. The more pragmatic part of her mind told her that such marital duty was bound to be infrequent. Indeed, give Gerbert’s years and the way he was prone to puffing up like a frog when agitated, she might be single again before long, and twice as rich with a very lucrative wool-gathering business to boot.
Face or flee. Slowly Miriel sat up and gazed into the fire, a frown on concentration on her face. She had been able to wind her grandfather round her little finger, why not Gerbert? Let him bind her in marriage, she thought grimly. She would tie him in a knot of his own making and still have her own way.