I judge a book by the length of time I spend reading it, whether compulsive or tedious. I have to say, this was one of the most difficult historical fictions I have read, not so much for lack of detail - there is plenty - but my lack of interest in this particular character. Alice Perrers is castigated by history as the harlot of Edward III, a woman who rose above her station as commoner, bore the king three children, and attempted to secure land for her daughter’s dowry after Edward’s death.
Married to wealthy merchant Janyn Perrers, Alice discovers that the family harbors a dark secret - a promise made to the Dowager Queen, Isabella, which creates the dramatic impetus of the story. Whether this secret is based in fact is purely speculative, but Alice’s future is bound to this marriage and her eventual sheltering by the royal family to protect her from her husband’s enemies.
As Lady-in-Waiting to Philippa of Hainault, Alice becomes mistress to Edward III with the tacit permission of the queen, debilitated from an injury and fully recognizing the king’s need for physical pleasure. Not yet twenty, Alice falls in love with the fifty-year-old Edward, a faithful lover until his death, even when failing health and mental capacity force him to thrust her into the public eye, the crux of the gossip circulating about a woman who has set herself above her station in life.
Unfortunately, the novel is bogged down with Alice’s self-absorption (although I realize this minutiae may interest some readers), the detail of her love affair and endless rationalizations for the decisions she makes. There is no doubt Alice uses her youth and beauty to acquire what she may, bearing Edward three children, a boy and two girls, among the others she has with Janyn and from a later marriage. Forced to wed William Wyndsor to avoid exile from her daughter after Edward’s death, this marriage brings Alice much grief and does little to aid in her daughter’s cause.
Her constant refrain is uttered throughout the book: “When had I a choice to be other than I was?” Perrers has a point. Women are in these times undoubtedly pawns of the men who control their fortunes and death erases everything Perrers has worked for, as a new marriage gives her property to the new husband. Even the love of a king cannot save Alice from this fate or from a society who views women as chattel. It’s hard to criticize a protagonist under such conditions, but this tale does nothing to endear this particular character to the reader, accenting her self-serving behavior, yet another victim of society. Greatness is not made of petty complaints.
Historically, Edward III is not a compelling character either, a Plantagenet king who ruled for many years from his youth to his dotage, reluctant to release the woman who makes him feel perennially young. To be sure, Alice’s presence through Edward’s death speaks to the loyalty she bears her lover, but with no royal blood or connection, she is at the mercy of the royal family when her days in the sun are over. I only wish Alice was a more interesting personality, her naiveté in the ways of the court and her constant sense of victimization robbing her of any empathy I might feel.