I would not wish Elizabeth Chadwick's 13th-century English medieval THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER on my worst enemy, let alone a friend. I enjoy challenging, engrossing reads and although THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER certainly is that, it offers no payoff for the torture and suffering the book inflicts on its main character Mirial, and, by extension, its readers for close to 300 pages of this 406-page hardcover. Although this book produces a "happy" ending in the last 3-4 pages, I much prefer Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE's dolorous conclusion to this book's relentless torture. Like LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE (***), Chadwick here shines at transporting the reader to another time and place. Chadwick's medieval English settings are immaculate, her look into the 13th-century mercantile trade thorough, and her writing and prose exquisite. Also like LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE, I could not put down THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER hoping beyond hope that the book would reward me somewhere for such an agonizing reading experience. Alas, not to be. In the middle of an extramarital affair with her lover (and the book's "hero") Nicholas, Mirial thinks, "There was a price to be paid and she had a nagging premonition that it would beggar them in the end." (p. 251) My reaction: hell, I'm already paying a steep price on behalf of these characters for reading this much, you mean I'll have to suffer even more? Plangently, the book responded with a thunderous, "YES!" Even after faithfully finishing this torturous novel, I'm not sure from where the book derives its title from because Mirial isn't a marsh king's daughter. Maybe it refers to the crown Mirial covets, a crown that once belonged to Empress Mathilda. But I still don't see the connection to a marsh king.
THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER mostly drums out an evil man's medieval possession of our main character Mirial. Mirial's willing marital consent to an apparently good, handsome man (Robert Willoughby) quickly dissolves to years of despair and pain. Robert asserts his ruthlessly possessive nature, and, frightfully for Mirial, painfully claims his marital rights as a husband. Although not exactly rape, it's the best word to describe the way Mirial recoils in fear and horror to a coupling with her husband, and then submits her unwilling body to Robert's callous abuse time and time again. Over the years of her second marriage, the book mostly showcases Mirial's fear and pain at the thought of her husband Robert claiming his marital rights during the nights and mornings. When he's not around, she often thanks circumstance for not having to submit to his marital rights. I like challenging books, rich plotting, and eruditely historical reads; but this isn't challenging, it doesn't contain nearly the intricate plotting as LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE, and the history doesn't measure up either. There has to be payoff somewhere for this kind of torturous read... but no.
I also didn't enjoy the adulterous affair between Mirial and her "hero" Nicholas. Most of the novel parades Robert's brutal coupling with Mirial or the dreadful anticipation of it. The guilt-ridden adulterous affair Mirial shares with Nicholas represents the only times in the entire novel Mirial enjoys a fulfilled lovemaking. At the time they initiate the affair, Mirial knows nothing of her husband Robert's diabolic malevolence. I was hoping she'd abstain from an adulterous liaison with her hero strife with guilt until she learned the full impact of her husband's perfidy and leaves him. She's basically sleeping with two men at the same time here: times when her husband Robert forces her and the adulterous moments of pleasure with Nicholas. The whole time I'm thinking: who's the father if she becomes pregnant? She thinks she's barren and throws Nicholas' caution out the door when he's careful at first not to spill his seed inside her. When the shock of an impending pregnancy finally looms, Robert informs her she is not the barren one, but he is (Robert has never fathered a child with two previous wives and mistresses in between). Robert proceeds to imprison her after uncovering her faithlessness and surreptitiously arranges Nicholas's demise. Even when she's pregnant with another man's child, the book brutally portrays Robert affirming his marital rights as Mirial's husband. Mirial accepts Robert's sexual brutality because she feels she's wronged Robert, and the contrived plotting which prevents her from learning the full extent of Robert's treachery (until the very end) also checks her from fleeing Robert. When she finally does learn of Robert's treachery, she doesn't kill him when she has the chance! Then she laments over her fate after she's captured by Robert! What did you think he'd do after ruthlessly killing so many people, Mirial? Sit around? The book tortures readers and extends Robert's devious and incessant plotting until page 399 of this 406-page hardcover! Are you kidding me?! Neither Mirial nor Nicholas take proactive steps to at least thwart Robert, in essence allowing him one last gasp after another!
I also didn't understand another thing: why would the Mother Hillary (the Abbess) at St. Catherine's go to so much trouble to notify Muriel's husband (Robert) of a rumored lover when Mirial fled the abbey? The Mother Abbess racks her brain to remember the rumored lover's name and goes insofar to await Robert before his departure just to tell him the name after she remembers . Mother Hillary professes to care for Mirial but how come she doesn't think twice divulging all of the dirty rumors of a past lover to Mirial's current husband, Robert? For a cunning Mother Abbess, she has no discretion?
Although I liked Mirial's fiery spirit, there's too many things I disliked about her too. She just accepts Robert's callous sexual abuse, reasoning she went into the marriage willing. And then she fails to kill him after his true, wicked character surfaces. I was actually hoping for some respite from Mirial's incessant suffering and rooting for Magdalene and Nicholas. A prostitute like Magdalene finally finding some love with Nicholas was the best part of a novel entirely about someone else: Mirial.
The "hero" (I place this in quotes because he fails to do anything and sparingly appears in the novel) Nicholas's honor prevents him from doing anything ruthless, even if it means helping someone in trouble. Stephen Trabe is right, honor is for fools and "honorable" fools like Nicholas de Caen really deserve death for clinging to their superior notions of morality. He has no qualms about filching royal treasure (because he feels King John owes him), but won't take ruthless steps to protect Mirial from Robert. Nicholas shuns doing anything outside of honor because of the underhanded way King John killed his family He doesn't want to become like King John, he reasons. He's simply too naive and too dumb to understand that taking ruthless actions to secure the safety of those you love from a villain who will never relent doesn't make you into a villain! After the pirate who holds Nicholas in captivity (le Pecheur) frees Nicholas (because Nicholas can't do anything by himself), Nicholas runs into his assassins again. The assassins corner him and again he needs rescuing, this time by a factual historical figure, Stephen Trabe. After he returns home, Nicholas thinks he will not resort to murdering Robert like Robert hired assassins to kill Nicholas and numerous others before him. First Nicholas wants to rescue Mirial, then worry about Robert, never really understanding that the two are intimately linked! Nicholas actually wants to honorably bring Robert to trial! Like when has that ever worked in a novel? He fails to understand that Mirial's safety depends on dealing with Robert first! All of it plays out melodramatically in the last 10-12 pages as Nicholas and Mirial run from Robert since Nicholas failed to deal with Robert first. Earlier when Nicholas witnesses the murder of one of Robert's competitors in the merchant business, he fails to investigate the blatant clues linking Robert to the death of Robert's competitor! Nicholas often waits around in a reactionary, "honorable" role (translation, foolhardy).
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
I found the premise of the novel very promising but in spite of Chadwick's superior writing and settings, this book was like punishment. I don't look to literature as an avenue for pain and torture, I really don't!
THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER is about the trials, tribulations and hardships of Mirial, born as Mirial Weaver, then Mirial Woolman, and finally (and most calamitously) Mirial Willoughby. Similar to Madeline Hunter's BY DESIGN (***), this book takes a very comprehensive look at the mercantile class in 13th-century England. We first see a spirited Mirial at home in her wealthy grandfather's stone house. Her grandfather was a reputed weaver and loved Mirial while her mother and stepfather wish to send her off in a convent due to her unruly behavior. She's described a kindred spirit, all defiance and pride. We see her stepfather beat her for her defiance and then ship her off to St. Catherine's. As a novice oblate at St. Catherine's, a wicked Sister further causes Mirial problems and Mirial dreams of escape. Meanwhile, Nicholas de Caen travels as a prisoner in King John's baggage train over the coasts of England. After the tide decimates the baggage train, Nicholas barely manages to escape with a treasure chest. After concealing the treasure chest, Nicholas collapses near St. Catherines. Mirial finds him and nurses him back to health. As Nicholas prepares to leave the abbey, Mirial hitches a ride with him and discovers of the treasure. She salivates at a crown originally belonging to Empress Mathilda. Before Nicholas and Mirial prepare to part ways, Mirial absconds with a significant minority of the treasure and the priceless crown in the middle of the night. Nicholas tries to find her but the "hero" that he is, fails.
Seasons pass. In the town of Nottingham, Mirial builds a fortune for herself from the portion of the treasure she took. She excels in the weaving trade, something she loves. Also in Nottingham, she meets ~60 year-old Gerbert Woolman and ~40 year-old Robert Willoughby, Gerbert's heir. Grisly old Gerbert lusts after Mirial and after discovering Mirial's escape from the convent forces her into marriage. But old Gerbert is pretty harmless and Mirial learns to appease him without consummating the marriage. More seasons pass. Mirial's stepfather soon attempts to sabotage his competition in Nottingham after Mirial's business takes off. Gerbert dies, and soon the handsome and vigorous Robert begins courting Mirial. Mirial accepts his heartfelt marriage proposal. After marriage with Robert, Mirial's hell begins as Robert abuses her body in bed. Since Mirial willingly agreed to the marriage and Robert is very caring otherwise, she learns to endure Robert's rights as a husband in the bed.
Mirial's fear, anxiety and pain from the anticipation of coupling with Robert and/or from the actual coupling comprise the bulk of the book's content. Unknown to Mirial for most of the novel, Robert ruthlessly eliminates his competition in his vast businesses and we as readers soon learn that it was Robert who eliminated Mirial's first husband Gerbert to obtain Mirial and her thriving weaving business.
On the side we're privy to brief glimpses of Nicholas's happenings. Nicholas too builds a fortune from the chest Mirial leaves him and realizes his dream in sailing and shipping. He soon owns four ships. The heart of the novel was definitely Nicholas' mistress Magdalene. A prostitute by profession, Magdalene soon comes to love and care deeply for Nicholas. Predictably, Nicholas and Mirial soon reunite under the worst of circumstances: Nicholas with Magdalene, and Mirial as Robert's wife. Nicholas is bitter about Mirial absconding with a portion of the treasure like a thief in the night and they affect a mutual hatred for one another. Nicholas and Mirial share passion though and for the first time in her life, Mirial enjoys sensual pleasure in an adulterous affair with Nicholas. A lot of grief and guilt ensue on both their parts (especially Mirial's). Nicholas asks her to leave her husband, and she rejects his proposal. Nicholas then marries Magdalene when he deduces she's pregnant (Magdalene genuinely didn't want to entrap him). Magdalene loves Nicholas dearly and knows of his affair with Mirial. After Mirial rejects running away with Nicholas, Nicholas comes to return Magdalene's love and devotion in matrimony. Again, I loved Magdalene and Nicholas's union, and it resonated so much more than Mirial and Nicholas. Nicholas is oblivious to Mirial's condition and Mirial's husband Robert discovers Mirial's adultery with Nicholas. Since Robert knows he's barren, he surmises the real father of the child Mirial carries. Again we're treated to more fear, anxiety and pain as Mirial (who feels horrible about her affair Nicholas) allows Robert to abuse her body sexually while she's increasing.
Truly, the adage, "You've made your bed, now you must lie in it," tortuously reverberates with Mirial's character.
The book comes to a very unsatisfying conclusion as Robert treacherously plots and schemes to eliminate Nicholas and sexually abuses Mirial's body. I hated that the book killed off Magdalene just to fabricate a "happy" ending for Nicholas and Mirial. Between Mirial and Magdalene and their babies, Robert kills off Mirial's baby, Mirial survives while Magdalene's baby survives but Magdalene dies. All so Nicholas and Mirial (really barren now after they kill her baby) could be together.
If you're into self-inflicted torture, this book is for you!