History records Richard of Gloucester (later King Richard III) fathered at least two illegitimate children. We do not know their mother's identity. Anne Easter Smith has imagined her as Kate Haute, Richard's first love, to whom he was faithful until his noble birth forced him to marry another. Smith tells Richard's turbulent story through Kate's eyes in her first novel, A Rose for the Crown.
Kate spends her earliest years on a humble farm until one of her mother's relatives takes her to his manor as a companion for his daughter. She tolerates her first, arranged marriage to a much older man, a prosperous merchant, who soon leaves her a wealthy widow. Kate then marries her dashing cousin George for love - or so she thinks. George wants her only for her money and prefers the company of the stable boy. During a visit to her neighbors, Sir John and Margaret Howard, loyal supporters of the house of York, Kate begins a passionate affair with Richard of Gloucester. Richard truly loves her and his children but makes clear he will eventually have to end their relationship to marry someone of noble birth.
The novel had its flaws but was an enjoyable and intriguing read overall. It kept my attention for all of its 600-plus pages, which is no mean feat, especially for a first-time novelist. Smith's writing was smooth and for the most part well paced, and the pages flew by despite the book's length.
Smith was best at evoking the textures of late medieval England - the clothes, the rich tapestries, the food, the music - as well as less pleasant realities of life - sickness, the stench of towns, the fleas and lice that plagued everyone. Her characters were well drawn and true to the times in which they lived. Kate and Richard's romance was sweet without being cloying, and Kate's domestic life, whether visiting Richard in a palace or playing with her children in her cozy cottage, was lovingly described.
Unfortunately, Kate was something of a "Mary Sue." She was far too perfect to be totally believable. Even her supposed flaws - outspokenness and stubbornness - endeared people to her. Most everyone in the novel just loved her, even when she should have made them angry. (The handful of characters who did not love her were the obvious, one-dimensional villains.) Richard, too, was portrayed as the perfect, chivalrous lord. Smith didn't have to turn him into Shakespeare's hunchbacked murderer, but a realistically flawed Richard would have made her story more believable and interesting.
Also, Smith tried to cram too much history into the novel's last 100 pages, which covered all the events from Edward IV's death to Richard's defeat on Bosworth Field. She skimmed over the juiciest parts of Richard's story and only mentioned in passing important characters such as the Duke of Buckingham, Margaret Beaufort and the Stanleys. Henry Tudor wasn't developed at all and the reader given scant information about why he invaded England to take the crown. I was disappointed Smith hurried through the climactic events of Richard's life. But overall, I enjoyed the story enough to eventually try another by this author.
A Rose for the Crown was my first read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. My grade: B.