Sue Arnold on the art of historical romance
Lady of the Butterflies, by Fiona Mountain, read by Patience Tomlinson (21hrs unabridged, Isis, £38.99)
Give your heroine a shift, a wimple or a whalebone corset and you automatically upgrade from chick-lit to historical romance. I’m not being snooty; I’ll listen to both if the story grips. This one, set in 17th-century Somerset in the aftermath of the civil war, the Monmouth rebellion, Judge Jeffreys et al, does that, all right. It’s based on fact. The Glanville fritillary is named after the book’s heroine, Eleanor Glanville, a pioneer lepidopterist whose son Forest brought lunacy proceedings against her on the grounds that no one in their right minds chased butterflies. She corresponded with the entomologist James Petiver (1663-1718), the first person to give butterflies English names – brimstone, tortoiseshell, admiral. How much of the rest of this Lorna Doone for grown-ups is true, heaven knows. It seems a little unlikely that in between floods, fires, plague deaths, marriages, abductions, peasant revolts and, of course, passion Lady Eleanor would have had much time for cabbage whites, but women, especially Puritan women, were tougher in those days. Here’s her first kiss from the love of her life, a handsome, reckless, tormented young Cavalier given to roguish smiles and dripping-wet, skin-tight breeches (he swims like a fish) à la Mr Darcy on television: “He bent his head and pressed his mouth against mine so softly at first, slow and tender and then harder, deeper, more insistent. Sensation rippled down through my body, through every limb to an agonisingly sweet peak . . . as if time itself had stopped, as if the night would never stop and the sun would never rise.”
Did you know that red wine attracts butterflies? Sprinkle it on your hand and they’ll think you’re a flower. You don’t find nuggets like that in chick-lit.
The King’s Mistress, by Emma Campion, read by Nicolette McKenzie (25hrs unabridged, Soundings, £40.99)
Another historical bodice-ripper based on fact – the king is Edward III, his mistress (one of scores during his 50-year reign, including a mother-and-daughter threesome, but that’s another story) is Alice Perrers, the 17-year-old widow of a Lombardy merchant. With not merely Queen Philippa’s consent but her actual connivance, Alice graduates from lady in waiting to royal concubine. That’s Campion’s version. The facts, based on an entry in the St Albans Chronicle – “she was a shameless, impudent harlot of low birth . . . not attractive or beautiful, but knew how to compensate for these defects” – are rather less specific, but facts are dull dogs to romantic novelists. Since no one would describe the Plantagenets as dull, Campion’s suggestion that Alice’s Lombardy merchant was murdered because he was the bastard son of dowager queen Isabella and her paramour Mortimer might even be true. My only gripe is our heroine’s obsession with praying. Any excuse and she’s on her knees. Happily, her faith doesn’t stop her having fun. “He gathered me to him, lifting me off my feet. His warmth caressed me and his lips – oh dear God, what sin was in that kiss? Wine and figs I tasted, and the heat of him . . .” (continued on CD 22).
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir, read by Judith Boyd (17hrs unabridged, Whole Story Audio, £29.99)
No more make believe, this is the real thing – a meticulously researched historical biography by, dare one say, an old pro. Even if you’ve done the Tudors via Starkey, Schama and that American TV series, and put Anne Boleyn as your Mastermind specialist subject, you’ll find something new here. Judith Boyd is a terrific historical narrator, calm and authoritative, but why does she give Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador in 1534 on whose journals Weir principally relies, a French accent straight from ‘Allo ‘Allo? Surely it should have been Manuel from Fawlty Towers.