Sometimes a romance writer’s vision lies in wait. Miss Bates started reading Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court two years ago and, to her shame, dropped it. The heroine is clubfooted: Miss Bates was uncertain how well the author would handle her disability. The opening left her doubtful. Wendy’s TBR Challenge, however, led her back to neglected titles, buried TBR shames and uncertainties. Miss Bates doesn’t know why a novel whose opening left her cold captured her on second reading (but there’s a lesson there for us all), but it grabbed her like the hero’s firm and gentle touch on the heroine and didn’t let go until she tapped the final glorious page. As poor Guildenstern and Rosencrantz say to the mad Prince, they are neither atop Fortune, nor underfoot, but abide amidst her “private parts.” Thus with our heroine Anne of Stamford, lady-in-waiting, companion, and confidante to Joan, Countess of Kent and Prince Edward’s secret wife, and hero Sir Nicholas Lovayne, emissary and right-hand-man to both Edwards, king and prince. Our protagonists aren’t nameless servants. They attend to the highest in the land and navigate the dangerous waters of royal whims and strategems; as our hero says, ” … the privilege of royalty. To be rewarded for behaviour that would damn any other mortal.”
Nicholas and Anne meet when Nicholas returns to court from Avignon where he fulfilled Prince Edward’s mission. He negotiated papal clearance of Lady Joan’s previous marriages and carried back a dispensation to legitimize her and Edward’s secret union with a public wedding. The pope, Nicholas’s diplomatic abilities supplemented by florins, agreed, but set conditions that see him and Anne travel to the Canterbury to seek confirmation from the Archbishop. Anne, crippled by her clubfoot, has never left Lady Joan’s side. She caters to Joan’s whims and keeps her secrets, secrets that can jeopardize the mad love Joan shares with the prince. Anne’s innate integrity chafes, but her crippled state and status would leave her a beggar were it not for Lady Joan. And so, she complies: “Lady Joan would do as she pleased and the world would accommodate her … She would be the one who held the truth of Lady Joan’s clandestine marriage. Again.” Secrets are a burden, especially when they’re held in trust by shadowy middlemen and women, such as Anne and Nicholas. Miss Bates loved that Gifford gave these figures a voice, desires, hopes, dreams, and most of all, wills.
Gifford’s novel is superbly researched and her characters, historical and fictional, come alive. Gifford understands that writing about the Middle Ages requires her to render character in such a way that they feel alien and strange to a contemporary audience. The reader should feel the years and changes that separate us from medieval times. Nevertheless, Gifford makes them sympathetic. Her love for her characters and respect for historical veracity shine through. Gifford’s Nicholas and Anne are two decent people at power’s mercy. The only life they’ve known is that of service to power. The beauty of this romance lies in Nicholas and Anne’s discovery, in their initially reluctant attraction and eventual love, of joy where there had only ever been “duty, obligation, and survival”. At first, Nicholas and Anne reside in opposing loyalty camps: Nicholas to truth and Anne to Lady Joan’s caprice. Yet, a momentary meeting of eyes and mutual understanding mark a shift in their world: “She raised her eyes again and he saw in their depths that she was accustomed to serving the rich. He knew that feeling … ” Romance, and Gifford in this instance, is good at these shared moments of awareness of and insight into the Other. In this moment, realpolitik is shunted aside in preparation for the romance’s ethos of love in mutuality and free choice to cleave to the Other. Nicholas and Anne connect because of an awareness of having lived for those who wield power over them. Their journey is one where, no matter the cost of speaking truth to power (and it is high) they bolster each other and learn to live for themselves and their relationship.
To continue, Nicholas and Anne, at their royal masters’ behest, journey to Canterbury. The freedom of the road, the necessity of slow travel in consideration of Anne’s disability, and the slow learning of the Other by talking and sharing find them chafing at their yokes’ bits. Nicholas wants this to be his final mission; he wants to return to France to fight another war, as a mercenary maybe, as long as he “would have no more of the wishes of others.” Being free of Lady Joan’s demands for the first time in her memory, Anne finally sees her truly: “Joan was mad. Playing with the laws of God and men as if she had the right. And suddenly, Anne wished fiercely she could do the same.” Anne questions Lady Joan’s judgement and choices, but doesn’t dwell on her; rather on herself, on how she’s never thought about her choices.
Miss Bates loved the theme of what it means to be “crippled” that ran throughout the novel. Anne may at first appear the weaker of the two and she certainly can’t move, run, and dance as other women. Nicholas, able-bodied, however, is “crippled” in a way Anne isn’t: “All these years, Nicholas … carried the resentment with him, dragged it wherever he went, just like Anne’s lame foot, making him unable to move toward something.” Nicholas is crippled by his fear of feeling for another. Yet, his innate decency and integrity water the desert of his heart in small, uncomfortable instances: ” … he was angry on her behalf for all the ignorant people who had, or would ever, hurt her. A strange and unwelcome thought. He had lived as he wanted for so long, detached, … Suddenly, he had heard the woman beside him, recognized her pain, and cared. An unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling.” Nicholas’s fears of what he feels for Anne lead to a hurtful emotional betrayal.
Anne’s return to court and Nicholas’s betrayal are the novel’s lowest points: Anne’s carefully preserved life is shattered in sundry ways. Yet, what Miss Bates loved about Anne are her complexity and dignity. She thinks through her errors and thinking of herself as weak, helpless, and dependent. Anne emerges with great dignity and the realization of her own value. As for Nicholas’s grovel: it’s gentle and true. It materializes out of his time with Anne, as they experience the journey and stop to pray at the cathedral. Nicholas remembers how Anne’s slower gait allowed her to take in the world in a way he never had, always running, always the mission before him. If he is to fully experience life, to let his heart yearn, reach, and find peace in the other and beauty of the world, Anne must show him the way: ” ‘I will help you walk. You can help me see.’ ” Nicholas can be Anne’s pilot, her stalwart arm, protector and lover, in the end, husband. But her gift to Nicholas, as he realizes, is far greater: to see the world with new eyes, to echo that lovely hymn, anachronistic as it may be here, to help him see where he once was blind.
Miss Bates is glad she finally read Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court: many were its rewards. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of it, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court is published by Harlequin. It was released on Feb. 18, 2014 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.