A Woman of Passion by Virginia Henley follows the life of the historical figure Bess of Hardwick. Bess went from being a farmer’s daughter to the second richest woman in England next to Queen Elizabeth I, mostly through four advantageous marriages in which she was quite successful at positioning herself to inherit from her husbands after they died.
I’d previously read a couple of other Henleys, most notably Seduced, a fun cross-dressing guardian/ward romp, but I didn’t remember the prose in that being as florid as in this book. There are countless instances of “couldn’t wait to feel his long, thick, marble-hard manroot inside her” and “her bud and petals unfurled with her pleasure” and so on — language which, while giggle worthy, ought to be considered excommunicable. However, despite being so purple, the sex is occasionally hot — but only because Bess is an expert cocktease (although she’d never call herself that), and so when the characters do get together, it can be quite explosive.
Also, don’t expect this to be a particularly authentic-sounding book — it’s anachronistic as hell. Characters are constantly stepping out of their period in both dialogue and action. Very distracting if you care about such things.
What I liked about the book was the unabashed portrayal of Bess’s ambition: she’s very Scarlett O’Hara, knows the importance of owning property, has a good head for calculating the figures required to run a piece of land, is ready and willing to manipulate her husbands into marriage or changing their wills in her favor or what-have-you. She also has a horrible temper and a rather lusty appetite for sex — one of the best passages in the book involves her attempts to teach one of her more elderly husbands how to be better in bed.
As in Gone with the Wind (and its sequel Scarlett, I suppose, up until Cat), there just isn’t much page-time devoted to Bess’s six children. For a book which is so obviously meant to be a sympathetic depiction of a strong woman, it’s odd that the actual experience of motherhood gets such short shrift. Bess breezes through all of her pregnancies, breastfeedings and weanings, and you barely get to know her children’s names until it comes time for her to start marrying them off. Sure, noble families in the Tudor era may not have been as nurturing as what we’re used to today, but it’s doubly jarring because there are moments when Bess declares that her children are the most important thing to her, or that everything she’s done has been for her children, and so it feels as though she’s either lying or the author is just being sloppy. I do like, however, that in the latter pages of the book Bess spends quite a lot of energy arranging marriages for her children in ways which, while they may rankle modern sensibilities, are refreshingly written as quite matter-of-fact and expected behavior.
Henley obviously loves Court intrigue. Much of the book is devoted to describing the sexual and political machinations of all the Williams and Catherines who seem to populate the English peerage of the time. The young Elizabeth I, just five years younger than Bess, is excellently drawn: passionate, practical, cruel, thoughtless, sexually curious, and of course, highly intelligent. She and Bess have an intriguing friendship throughout the book, a strong and mutually beneficial relationship, but often rocky due to the pressures surrounding them both.
The other interesting female character is Lady Frances Grey, niece of Henry VIII. She’s the typical older mentor figure: a powerful middle-aged observer of the Court, bawdy and sexually aggressive, and she encourages the same behavior in others. But after being such a central figure in the first half of the book, she sort of fades into the background and we get absolutely no reaction or perspective from her regarding the tragic events surrounding her unfortunate daughter Jane Grey. Bizarre.
As for Bess’s husbands, well, they’re quite entertaining, marble-hard manroots and all. Bess at least has a warm affection for the two she doesn’t consider great loves, and for the two she does, they’re not such bad guys once she successfully cockteases them into marriage. In spite of myself, I really liked George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, her fourth and final husband. He begins as a chauvinist pig of a teenage boy, continues on as a chauvinist wealthy arrogant adulterer, and suddenly morphs into a kind, moral man who truly loves his children and Bess. I feel sort of guilty confessing that I was rooting for them the whole time (I have a childhood friends kink, although technically I suppose he and Bess were never friends) — but whatever. He’s entertaining, he’s hot, he’s rich, and he seems to understand Bess’s ambitions well enough that they make an entertaining, hot, rich couple together.
It’s too bad Henley ends their story where she does, as apparently quite a lot of tumult took place in the house of Shrewsbury when Elizabeth later ordered them to guard Mary, Queen of Scots. But hey, it’s a romance novel: it had to have a happy ending.
And also, of course, marble-hard manroots.