REVIEW: Gilliane by Roberta Gellis
Dear Ms. Gellis,
I needed a pick me up book over the weekend. Kati recently wrote about comfort reads and this book is one of mine. It was my first of your books, even though it is number four in the Roselynde Chronicles series. And I suppose because it was my first, it is also my favourite. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was in a box of books given to my mother by a family friend when I was in my early teens. There is a sticker on the back of my copy which says it cost $1.80 from a used bookstore, but when it was originally printed way back in 1979, it was only $3.75 in Australia – an MMP costs about $20 here now – those were the days!!
Luckily for newer readers, the series has been reissued in digital format by Ellora’s Cave and they retail at about $6.00 so I think they’re still a bargain. Because the books are medievals, they aren’t really dated – or at least, I didn’t find anything in this, my fourth (or more) re-read, which offended my modern sensibilities. It is however a book set in a time when patriarchal power was more obviously wielded. The women of the Roselynde Chronicles are however, strong women who own property in their own right and are respected among their peers and by their men. Women in general however, were mostly regarding as “silly”. It is not something which bothers me – I felt that the way the men thought of women was understandable for the times and it was one of the many elements which added to the historical setting and made it all the more immersive for me. I like that the main female characters are strong, intelligent women because that is, my experience. I believe it is in an Author’s Note to the first book where you explain that while it was uncommon for women to own property in medieval times, it was not unheard of (but I stand to be corrected regarding in which book the Author’s Note appeared). I felt that the book had a strong sense of place and time, staying true to the period but also making the characters accessible to the modern reader.
Anyone who knows me will know that my least favourite trope is the “Big Misunderstanding”. Just to prove there is an exception to every rule, this, my most favourite of your books, is a story where the central conflict between the hero, Adam Lemagne and the heroine Gilliane De Chaunay, is a series of misunderstandings. However, what is perhaps different is that these misunderstandings do not prevent the characters from falling in love and wanting to be together always – they do prevent, for much of the book, a true meeting of minds, but there are no long periods where the characters are in serious disharmony. Hopefully that statement will make more sense shortly.
Gilliane is a young and beautiful heiress from France. Her lands are fairly modest and upon the death of her father when she was very young, her overlord gave her wardship to Saer de Cercy, a cruel and brutal man. Gilliane was regularly beaten (as were all of Saer’s womenfolk) and she lived mostly in fear. Saer’s second son Osbert is also cruel and brutal but even worse, he is stupid (and perverted). Saer has a plan to marry Gilliane off to Osbert (no-one else would have him) and by the marriage, continue to have control and income from Gilliane’s lands (which he has been bleeding dry ever since he has been in charge of them and whose accounts would not stand much scrutiny). Upon Prince Phillip of France’s campaign in England near the end of King John’s reign, Saer and Osbert go to England. Saer kills a man in a tourney and by nefarious means, also maims and brutalises the man’s heir. His plan to save the estate and rectify his sad “mistake” in the death of the father, is to marry Gilliane off to Gilbert de Neville – he is brain injured and maimed but his bits still work and thus de Neville heirs can inherit the property. Saer, will kindly oversee the properties until there is an heir of age. (Isn’t he a peach?) The plan for Osbert to marry Gilliane is therefore shelved, much to Osbert’s dismay.
Greedy Saer also decides to take a keep which is nearby; a keep owned by one Adam Lemagne. Adam is the son of Alinor of Roselynde and Simon Lemagne, Alinor’s first husband. He is only eighteen, and young even for a knight but as he is responsible for his late father’s lands, his training has been accelerated. Having been raised by Alinor, Adam’s experience of women is fairly unique. He knows there are “women and women and women”. Some are like his mother and sister, some are light and silly and some are coarse and filthy in spirit – Adam is holding out for just the right wife and will not take second best.
It was not for lack of being asked that Adam was still unmaried. Men had been proposing their sisters and daughters to him since he was fourteen, when he had reached the legal age of consent. And it was not owing to a distaste for the maried state that had made Adam insist his mother and stepfather refuse all offers thus far. In fact, Adam desired very much to be married…
…It was the silliness, really, that had kept Adam unwed. He was well found in lands and allied thorugh marriage to the high nobility. Thus, the ladies offered to him were of high estate and their education had fitted them for that estate – that is, it had fitted them to do nothing except bear children. Oh, they could sing and play, and talk most amusingly, embroider exquisitely. Adam approved of all these skills most heartily; his mother and sister were both excellent conversationalists and notable needlewomen. However, that was by the way, a lace trimming, as it were, upon the solid cloth of their real abilities. Alinor and Joanna could also manage a keep without intervention of stewards, run a farm as well as any bailiff, cure a sick or wounded man better than a physician, trade as keenly and keep accounts as well as any merchant and, he suspected, from the heavy-eyed look of their husbands on many mornings, play the wanton as skillfully as a high-priced whore. “
After Saer is killed in battle, Adam rides with a small army to take Tarring keep, where Gilliane is. Osbert has disposed of Gilbert, drugged and forcibly married Gilliane and then run off to Prince Phillip to escape the wrath of Adam. He is hoping that Gilliane will be killed by Adam as the marriage contract makes him Gilliane’s sole heir.
Gilliane is a very smart woman. She has had to live by her wits for most of her life and has learned to think on her feet so as to avoid the blows and abuses from her guardians. She has not been trained in many of the things Alinor and Joanna know – but it is only lack of training, not lack of intelligence which is the cause. When Adam meets Gilliane, she is the “Lady of Tarring” and he confers upon her the skills and talents of his mother and sister, almost by default. He sees her actions through that lens and imputes to Gilliane greater knowledge than she actually has. Gilliane, for her part, falls almost instantly in love with Adam – he is not only good-looking, he is a “giant of a man” and has a deep booming voice – these last two things are her entire memories of her much loved father. Adam is also the first man since her father who has had power over her and has treated her with respect and kindness. Adam is also smitten on first acquaintance and sees in Gilliane not only a beautiful woman, but a clever one who is a tad more gentle in spirit than his mother or sister and he quickly determines to rid the world of Osbert and marry Gilliane himself.
There is suspicion from Adam’s part over who was responsible for Gilbert’s death – had Gilliane caused it to be rid of a feeble-minded cripple for a husband? She is also French and he is therefore concerned her loyalties lie with Prince Phillip/King Louis, whereas Adam is loyal to the English king (now King Henry III, as John has died). As much as he loves and desires her, Adam is troubled by his doubts about these issues and his doubts are fed by Gilliane’s strange behviour (well, strange to him) when it is time for him to go into battle. Gilliane, for her part has never feared for anyone other than herself before. Loving Adam as she does, she now experiences fear for him and she comes up with clever ways to try and dissuade Adam from war (and the inherent risk it entails). There are other smaller misunderstandings on Gilliane’s part too, but the beauty of them is that they do not really keep the couple apart. In fact, both Adam and Gilliane resolve to be together even if their worst fears are true (which I LOVE).
The delight of this book for me, is watching Gilliane become the competent and possessive land-owner Adam believes her to be when he first meets her. It’s a kind of non-vicious circle – Adam believes it, Gilliane will do anything to please him, she pretends to know what do to until she does know what to do and it is then so and, based on Gilliane’s demonstrated competence, Adam confers upon her more expertise and so on.
Gilliane was ready to believe that pigs could fly or that snow was hot if Adam said so.
Because Adam is so confident in her, Gilliane is inspired to be the woman he thinks she is.
If Adam thought it was reasonable that she should rule the lands, Gilliane resolved that she would rule them if it killed her.
The theme continues throughout the book and it is something which is endlessly satisfying to me.
“How long will it take you to provision the men?” Adam asked.
Gilliane blinked. “How many men, for how long:” she asked instinctively, more to delay the admission that she had never done such a thing and had no idea what to do than because she realised she had to know.
And it is not just Adam she impresses this way, but also her vassals and castellans and Adam’s Master-At-Arms, Alberic.
“I know what my lord would order in such a case. They are the men who returned with Cuthbert.”
“Oh!” Gilliane’s face cleared. She had seen the solution to the problem of not having the faintest idea of the appropriate punishment. “Well, their lessoning must be the same as that given to your own men. It would be most unwise to treat them differently. Do you tell me what Sir Adam would order, and I will order the same.”
Alberic sighed with pleasure and relief. The lady was as wise as she was beautiful and had a proper feeling for the management of the men-at-arms.
Adam, because of his experience with his mother and sister, includes Gilliane in discussions of the management of her land, her vassals and castellans.
Gilliane’s brow was creased with concentration. She had never thought in this way about such things before, but Adam expected it and she must do it; necessity sharpened her keen wits.
There is a rich history in the story and the civil war and early reign of young King Henry III are woven into the story seemlessly. Even though it is a romance book, there is much more to the story than the relationship of Adam and Gilliane. There is a “meatiness” to the history. It is not at all a wallpaper historical.
That said, the story is also deeply romantic.
But his attention had already wandered back to Gilliane. He stroked her hair, his glance gentle. “Do not drive my dove too hard,” he murmured, ” and do not let her fret”.
Adam and Gilliane fall for each other very quickly but they also get to know one another over the course of the book and just about every interaction deepens their connection. There is an intimacy to these things even when they are talking about provisioning an army or disciplining recalcitrant castellans. Adam himself at one point ponders that the everyday intimacy of sharing such mundane things are castle provisioning and grain harvests which he longs to share with Gilliane more fully when they are finally able to be married.
The story is not terribly explicit but there is a satisfying amount of emotional and physical intimacy to the story and there is just something so delightful about Adam never actually knowing that Gilliane hadn’t a clue about land management when he first met her and how ultimately, the story is all about female empowerment.
There is a richness to the language and an immersive quality in both the historical setting and the text. I have read this book multiple times and have adored it on each occasion. I still give it an A.