In the Master’s Bed
by Blythe Gifford
(Harlequin, $5.99, R) ISBN 978-0373-29562-3
Set in the 13th century, In the Master’s Bed is intriguing because of the premise: a woman disguises herself as a man in order to learn and be useful. Sadly, it is slow-moving and not very historical on the one hand, yet is almost too concerned with history on the other. I find myself torn; hence I must give you a warning – think twice.

Jane de Weston is the daughter of a woman who once was the mistress of a king. Jane has been told her whole life that she is the King’s daughter, even though her mother was married to deWeston. But the King became old and when he died, mother and daughters were shunned and sent away. Many years later, the eldest daughter is married and about to give birth. Jane laments her status as a female and is scared of the birthing process and of the fact that a man will be coming soon who wants to marry her. In her fright, she runs away dressed as a boy. Her dream is to travel, study Latin and eventually go to Court as an aide to the King…all as a male. She binds her breasts, wears pants and ta-da – she is a male named John.

On the journey to Cambridge she meets Duncan who attracts her, even though she thinks little of him. He is rude and laughs at her attempts at translation. It turns out he is a master teacher and is on his way to Cambridge where he runs a hostel and school, teaching. He is on the fringe of academia because he is from the borderlands and at times, appears uneducated. Duncan is determined to petition the King to help fight off Scottish invaders and to help release his father from captivity where he is being held for ransom. Reluctantly he ends up taking “John” home and agreeing to teach him. John needs lot of training to reach the level where he can be accepted at university. But Duncan sees something of his younger brother in John and swears to protect him, something he was not able to do when his brother fell to his death. He feels guilt despite the fact that he was only 12 when the accident happened.

The bulk of the story follows John/Jane in her studies while she fights her attraction to Duncan, and Duncan fighting the affection that he worries is unnatural. There are lots of incidents of almost getting caught and many minor side tales surrounding the King and the petition. This is where the history comes in and at times, it is confusing and overwhelming to the story. Jane’s family, particularly her sister and her husband are also searching for Jane, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

Of course, discovery is inevitable and the obvious attraction is consummated. At this point, the battle of wills begins. Duncan wants Jane to return to her family as a woman; a woman he cares for but due to his own reasons, cannot marry. Jane wants to continue as John even though she is in love with Duncan. Duncan thinks Jane should start acting like a woman, especially now that he knows the truth. Of course, Jane hates being a woman and wants to just be a man and go on as before, with the benefit of periodic lovemaking.

Much of the story could have been told in any century where woman were not seen as the equal of men. But in the century chosen, there are times when it just seemed impossible to believe that her charade good enough to fool the multitude of men who live in the hostel. The whole mechanics of bathing, dressing, and even relieving herself is never totally addressed. She bathes when washing clothes…hmm…didn’t really buy it. How does she hide her menses? Does she never unwrap her breasts so they can breathe? None of these issues were addressed and the story was more difficult to buy because of those limitations. Duncan was an uneven character and I never fully understood his situation of part-time scholar, part-time warrior and part-time landowner. 

In the Master’s Bed is a real mixed bag. As I wrote the review and thought about the story, it grew more difficult to buy many of the premises. The author’s note indicates that her research found a woman who did dress as a man in order to study in that time frame. I just found the premise hard to accept with this particular Jane and this particular man. 

--Shirley Lyons

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