Today I settled down for my lunchtime reading with Sweet Passion’s Pain by Karen Harper. Because it’s about Joan “the Fair Maid of Kent,” wife to the Black Prince and mother of Richard II, it interested me, despite the cheesy title. (Published in the 1980’s, the book’s being reissued this year with the title The First Princess of Wales.)
In the opening scene, young, unmarried Joan is getting ready to leave her childhood home at Liddell Manor to go to the court of Edward III. We know she’s unmarried because she tells her nurse, spirited girl that she is, that she has “no intention of wedding for years and years yet.” Two pages later, we find out the date this scene is taking place: May 1344.
Big problem. Joan of Kent was married to William de Montacute in 1340/41; before that, she might well have been married to Thomas Holland, who convinced the Pope of that when he got the Montacute marriage annulled in 1349. In any case, Joan certainly wasn’t single in 1344.
So I turn a few pages, heart sinking, and meet Edmund, Joan’s bossy twenty-three-year-old brother. Joan did have a brother named Edmund, but he died in 1331, as a young child. As this hasn’t been billed as a ghost story, this is not promising either. I skip back a page, where an astrologer has been droning on about Joan’s birth date, and notice that he says that Joan was born “the summer her father died.” Well, a posthumous child was born to the executed Edmund, Earl of Kent, but it wasn’t Joan but her younger brother John. Little Joan, in fact, is said to have been one of the sponsors at his baptism because the family was in prison at the time and no adults were able to fill the role. (Lest you be wondering, I’ve picked up these details in doing research for my own novel-in-progress. Joan is the sister-in-law of my heroine, Elizabeth de Montacute.)
OK, time to skim ahead a little in Sweet Passion’s Pain. Joan of Kent’s mother, Margaret, was in poor health when mother and daughter parted, and sure enough, five months later Joan is summoned to Margaret’s deathbed. It’s a moving scene, but a tad early: We’re still in 1344, it seems, and the historical Margaret didn’t die until 1349.
Finally, it’s 1347, and Joan is at last getting married to William de Montacute, the man whom history indicates she had married in 1341.
Now, I’m not unpityingly picky in terms of historical accuracy. I’ve made mistakes in that area myself, for one thing. And if someone’s eating the wrong food, wearing the wrong armor, dancing the wrong dance, or donning the wrong headdress, it doesn’t bother me, unless the novel contains just one anachronism after another. But I do like to have people in a novel be born, marry, and die on the same dates that history says they did, if history gives definite dates and they’re accessible to a researcher who’s not a professional historian. When the people in question are minor characters, I can go on reading if the crucial dates are wrong, though not with much pleasure; when they’re major characters, I simply can’t—unless the novel is so bad in other respects that it’s perversely fun to read.
So, blog readers, would this be a deal breaker for you? Or would you slog on anyway? What type of inaccuracies make you slam a historical novel shut?
While you’re pondering this, I’m off to find another novel. (In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading about Joan of Kent, you might try Juliet Dymoke’s Lady of the Garter, published in 1979, a few years before the Harper novel was published. Not only does an aging, overweight Queen Isabella make a few appearances in it, Dymoke gets Joan of Kent’s dates straight.)