I’ve heard good things about John Cowper Powys’ historical novel Owen Glendower, but haven’t had the inclination to wade through it yet. Instead, I bought a copy of White Lion, Red Dragon, a 2003 historical novel by Nobilia Paen about the marriage of Edmund Mortimer to Catherine, daughter of Owen Glendower, here spelled Owain Glyn Dŵr. (An interesting feature of this book is that the back jacket copy is in both English and Welsh.) It’s available on Amazon.uk.
The author describes this as a love story, and it is, without being a romance novel. Catherine, called Cathi, is forced to disguise herself as a boy to evade her father’s enemies. She falls into the hands of a farm couple who put her to work, still in her guise as a lad. When Edmund Mortimer is injured and taken prisoner, she nurses him, and nature takes its course when a recovering Edmund stumbles upon Cathi bathing. The couple gain their freedom and marry, bringing Edmund over to the Glendower cause.
I found Cathi and Edmund to be extremely likeable characters, presented by Paen with affection, sympathy, and even some gentle humor. Cathi remains sweet and somewhat naïve even after tragedy after tragedy strikes, bearing her trials with admirable fortitude. Edmund, though brave, kindly, and good to his dependents, is not always the sharpest tool in the shed: it takes him two full pages to get the hint after an older woman comments knowingly on the cause of Cathi’s sudden nausea.
Having a deep dislike for novels featuring heroines who have mystical visions or who foretell the future (though never as helpfully as one might wish, and never enough to spoil the plot), and having found that such heroines often seem to crop up in historical novels about Wales, I was relieved to find a dearth of visionaries here. And though this is a love story between two attractive young people, we’re spared the endless descriptions of the protagonists’ physical perfection that often figure in such tales.
White Lion, Red Dragon is narrated in the third person but mostly from Cathi’s point of view, so most of the historical events unfold as they are told to Cathi. This can be confusing at times and also somewhat limiting, as major historical figures like Hotspur and Glendower himself appear only briefly here. It would also have been nice for the author in her short note to provide a little more detail as to the likely fate of Edmund and Cathi’s son, Lionel, instead of the unenlightening comment that Adam of Usk “knew a very great deal more than he dared to write.”
This novel isn’t an epic tale in the tradition of Sharon Penman or Nigel Tranter; those who are looking for something like that here will probably be disappointed. As a moving love story between two good people whose happiness is tragically cut short by political upheaval, however, White Lion, Red Dragon is well worth reading.