There are few words more evocative of some ancient and misty time than "troubadour," and in this satisfying historical novel by Robyn Carr, the word is given an unusual twist. While most people probably think that troubadours were singers or wandering minstrels, actually they were poets whose works were often performed or sung by others. And the troubadour of the title is, in fact, a woman, Ve'ronique de Raissa, handmaiden and court poetess to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yet in another unexpected spin, the book's heroine is not Ve'ronique but her illegitimate daughter, Fe'lise.
From this point on, however, Carr is as much a mistress of formula as any medieval spinner of love tales, and "The Troubadour's Romance" is for all readers who like their ladies beautiful and proud and their lords lusty. Those who wince at such snippets of dialogue as "God's blood, madam, you truly think me a beast" should look elsewhere for excitement, but aficionados of the genre will sigh contentedly as the stolen bride soon learns to welcome the kisses of the stern nobleman who has spirited her away.
In some ways, too, this novel has a bit of unexpected modern appeal, for in addition to the knight-meets-girl theme, it's a story of real estate and enhanced property values -- gentrification, 12th-century style, one might say.
When King Henry commands Sir Royce Leighton to marry secretly the red-haired young beauty Fe'lise Scelfton and take her to his family's keep, Segeland, it's a dank and uninviting castle the pair finds. The brutality of the Leighton male line, it seems, has laid a virtual curse upon the place, and Royce himself suffers from a decidedly unhelpful and heavy load of ancestral guilt.
Also, because of Segeland's dark history, the villagers lurk about behind closed windows and doors, cringing when addressed, and this, of course, makes Fe'lise's domestic task no easier. But unlike Shakespeare's shrewish Katharina, an even more reluctant newlywed also facing hostility and tumbledown digs, Fe'lise pushes back her "snugly fitted" sleeves and sets to work right away.
"When bright fires warmed each hearth, when pots of brewis simmered in great kettles, when tapestry hangings decorated the walls and rushes and rugs lay scattered about the hard floors, this would be a good home," she thinks in a passage that smacks of renovation advice straight out of Country Living. So, with the help of indulgent foster parents, who send her the Middle Ages equivalent of an entire Conran's, Fe'lise transforms Segeland while awaiting the return of Royce, who has gone off to inspect her dowry holdings in France.
There's a pleasant momentum to the plot; it's a rhythm, almost like a familiar tune playing in the background, that acts in the book's favor every time some obvious or unsurprising event occurs. Okay, you note, so there's a corrupt priest preying on the cowed locals and pocketing the tithe: he'll get his. And so will the jealous, plotting knights who wish harm to Fe'lise and Royce. To be sure, wrongs both old and new will be righted, and why not? One recognizes the conventions but at the same time doesn't resent them.
Moreover, since practically every word of a work of the imagination set in a world 700 years past is a potential anachronism, there doesn't seem to be any point in quibbling as long as the author is able to keep that familiar tune in our ears. This phenomenon, really, is what makes good genre fiction so fondly regarded by addicts, and it stems, I think, from a writer's confident hold of the material at hand and also from an utter lack of cynicism.
Robyn Carr's four previous novels bear titles like "The Braeswood Tapestry" and "The Blue Falcon," and it's not at all likely that they're about Soviet moles, unhappy academics or suburban youth. Her heart, just as her readers' are, is clearly with mail-clad heroes on snorting mounts and heroines in fur-trimmed cloaks tossed across their saddles. But while research will turn up such period details as the above-mentioned "brewis" (a kind of broth) or the "chausses" (metal leggings) Sir Royce wears, it's that unstinting and uncynical affection that animates them.
Thus, "The Troubadour's Romance" delivers what its title promises. Open it up and out of its pages ride a procession of misty figures -- the ladies Ve'ronique, Fe'lise and Endrea, the knights Sir Royce, Sir Hewe, Sir Boltof, Jasper the seneschal, Daria the maid, Master Chaney, the wool merchant -- who gain identity and a semblance of individuality as we meet them. Then, after they've done their turn, they fade back into the cast of stock characters from which Robyn Carr has lovingly plucked them for her own pleasure and for ours.