Philippa Gregory has created an interesting scenario in this novel, the sixteenth century peopled not so much with historical characters - other than Henry VIII - as with ideas: the threat of the Church’s avid Inquisitors, an inherent fear of witchcraft in the rural countryside, where superstition mixes freely with religion, and the utter helplessness of women born without title or family for protection.
Taken into the hovel of the local wise woman, Morach, Alys knows little of the world beyond the healing herbs and love potions demanded by local women. But when sent to a nearby convent on an errand, Alys falls in love with the cleanliness and serenity of the place, starting a new life as Sister Ann, guided by her new “Mother” Hildebrande.
Unfortunately, Henry has broken from Rome, looting monasteries to fill his coffers, willing lords drunkenly descending on unsuspecting religious orders, putting them to the torch. Indeed, when Sister Ann wakes to the smell of burning wood and the cries of those trapped in the conflagration, she reverts to her earliest instincts, running for her life.
Banging on Morach’s door in the night, Alys is welcomed by her mentor, the old woman happy for the extra hands to ease her daily burdens. Once more the women settle into routine, Alys grieving for her lost Mother and her damaged soul. But even this respite is not to last. Soldiers suddenly arrive, demanding the young wise woman come to the aid of a local lord who is ill.
Alys is kindly received by the aging Lord Hugh, who soon recovers. When he learns she can read and write, Hugh asks Alys to remain as his clerk. Once she sets eyes on him in the great hall, Alys is hopelessly infatuated with the handsome Hugo, Lord Hugh’s son and a notorious womanizer. Beset with an overwhelming lust, Alys harbors as well an unsettling guilt, memories of her spiritual life at war with her awakened senses.
Above all, a pregnant Catherine must provide an heir to the family, but as the pregnancy advances, the lovesick girl entertains darker powers learned from Morach. Trapped in Hugo and Catherine’s twisted marriage as one of Catherine’s ladies and her emerging role as clerk for Lord Hugh, Alys begins an elaborate, if innocent, seduction that is soon distorted by carnal desire, betrayal and witchcraft.
Throughout Alys’s evolution from innocent maid to wanton, her internal conflict is clearly devastating, a choice between the spiritual life and the sensual rewards of Hugo’s insatiable lust. But power is elusive, Alys tricked more than once by her foolish expectations. Given her place in society, a pawn to the whims of any man, Alys’s actions are understandable, even predictable, yet this is a most flawed character.
The feminist message is clear, as well as Alys’s inability to turn away from the passion of her affair. Almost two hundred pages too long, I was unsatisfied at the end of this girl’s tragic journey, such temptations overwhelming in the face of paucity, where any source of power is irresistible.