The Marsh King’s Daughter
by Elizabeth Chadwick
(St. Martin’s, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-26491-7
****
I have heard a lot of good comments about British author Elizabeth Chadwick’s historical novels but have never before had a chance to read one. After all, she isn’t published in paperback and I never go to the library any more (why would I, with my tbr mountain?). Thus I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review her latest release. I now understand why readers who really appreciate the opportunity to immerse themselves in the past are so fond of Chadwick’s books.

Let me begin by noting that this is not a romance, at least not as romance has come to be defined by American readers and authors. Yes, there is a love story and yes, there is a happy ending. But in all other respects, The Marsh King’s Daughter violates the current conventions of the genre. As a historical romance, the book might be found wanting; as historical fiction, it is a superb and compelling recreation of life early 13th century England.

The tale begins with the heroine, Miriel, being shunted off to a convent by her stepfather. Miriel had been her grandfather’s favorite; he had taught her all about his prosperous wool weaving business. But when he died, the business fell into his son-in-law’s hands and Nigel Fuller has no time for his troublesome step-daughter, the reminder of his wife’s fall from grace seventeen years earlier. Miriel has no religious vocation and her rebellious spirit chafes against the discipline of the convent. When she rescues a young man from certain death and helps nurse him back to health, she seizes upon his presence as a chance to escape her unhappy fate.

Nicholas de Caen had been a prisoner of King John, captured after the failed siege of Lincoln during the revolt that followed the king’s repudiation of the Magna Carta. He was confined in a cart in the king’s baggage train as it made its way across a narrow causeway on the Marsh. As history records, the train containing all of the king’s supplies and treasure was swamped by the onrushing tide. Nicholas succeeds in saving himself by hanging on to a pony that is carrying a treasure chest. He buries the chest before collapsing from cold and exposure. When he leaves the convent, with Miriel on his trail, he recovers a fortune which will allow him to reestablish himself. Since the king had destroyed his family, Nicholas feels no compunction about taking the money.

Miriel convinces Nicholas to take her with him on his journey but at the first chance, she steals a portion of the treasure and parts company with her rescuer. She justifies her theft because she had saved his life. Thus, the two go their separate ways. Much of the story recounts each’s success in using the silver to rebuild their fortunes.

Miriel marries a much older man and uses the money to buy a weaving business. When her first husband dies, she weds his godson, also a successful merchant. Robert Willoughby burns with a desire to succeed and is completely ruthless in his methods. Nicholas becomes a successful owner of a fleet of merchant vessels. Then, after years apart, the two meet again and when an unexpected and irresistible spark strikes between them, both find themselves in the greatest danger.

The Marsh King’s Daughter has many strengths. First, there is Chadwick’s meticulous recreation of the 13th century world of commerce. I am not usually swayed by cover blurbs, but this one is right on: “Reading an Elizabeth Chadwick novel is the next best thing to time travel.” If you want to really get a feel for life in the middle ages, then read this book.

The second is the heroine, Miriel. This is a strong and competent woman who makes choices and then lives with their consequences. She is not at all anachronistic; there were many women like her who excelled in what was a man’s world. But she also suffers from the limitations and barriers that faced women in the medieval world.

The third strength is the hero, Nicholas. He is bold and dashing and able and at the same time, exhibits an underlying kindness and humanity. The fourth strength is all the other characters who come to life thanks to Chadwick’s talent. She weaves a rich tapestry of medieval society.

Were I asked to compare Chadwick’s novel to other authors’ work, I would point to Sharon Kay Penman. Or, I might suggest that she is sort of Dunnett-lite. She has the same feel for the past, the same ability to bring it to life, but without the complexity - might I say density?- of the great Dorothy Dunnett.

Let me admit that, after reading The Marsh King’s Daughter, I checked for other Chadwick books at my local bookstore. Not finding any there, it looks like I’ll be heading for the library after all.

--Jean Mason


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