Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Royal Mistress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anne Easter Smith. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
As the War of the Roses neared its end and Edward IV led England into a period of peace and prosperity, Jane Lambert, a bright young mercer’s daughter, cherished hopes of true romance. When she caught the eye of Thomas Grey, son of Elizabeth Woodville and stepson to Edward IV, she believed she had found it. But Grey disappeared from her life, and she married mercer William Shore to find that not only was he emotionally detached, but impotent as well. Determined to have children, Jane searched for a way to end her marriage—and unwittingly came to the notice of Edward IV and his chamberlain, William Hastings.
Despite the antagonism and machinations of Edward’s queen, Elizabeth, Jane remained his mistress for seven years and found happiness, stability, and the power to assist her friends. His death in 1483 and her fear for her future threw her into a relationship with Hastings, who had been a friend throughout her life at court. But their affair was doomed to be short-lived—Hastings fell under suspicion of plotting against Richard of Gloucester, protector of Edward’s heir and later crowned Richard III. After Hastings’s execution, Jane and Thomas Grey were reunited. Still believing him to be her true love, she risked certain punishment by harboring him, only to be abandoned yet again and imprisoned for her troubles. But it was her imprisonment in Ludgate that brought her to her final relationship. There she met the lawyer Thomas Lyneham, who became her husband and the father of her daughter, Julyan.
From a freewoman of London to royal mistress to mother and wife, Jane Shore survived court intrigue, the end of one king’s reign and the turbulent start of another, and public shame and imprisonment, and still went down in history as one of the merriest women in England.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Jane Shore is remembered for her role in Edward IV’s court. What expectations do you associate with the phrase “royal mistress”? How does Jane fulfill her role? In what ways, if any, does she defy expectations?
2. Consider this oft-quoted saying: “Every villain is the hero of his own story.” Who are the villains in Royal Mistress? What are their motivations?
3. Compare the different ways that Elizabeth Woodville and Jane Shore use their sexuality to gain power, and wield that power once they’ve attained it.
4. How does the portrayal of Richard III in Royal Mistress match up to other accounts with which you are familiar?
5. Did you find yourself wondering about the historical accuracy of a certain character or plot point? How much does accuracy matter to you as a reader of fiction?
6. Jane has very different relationships with Edward IV, William Hastings, Thomas Grey, and Thomas Lyneham. Would you identify one as “true love,” above the others? Would Jane?
7. Jane manages to avoid becoming jaded, despite her affairs and their consequences. How does she reconcile her own beliefs and morals with those of her society?
8. Early in Jane’s marriage to William Shore, he gives her frequent presents to try and keep her happy, despite their problems. Her friend Sophie has a miserable marriage until Jane is able to help their family financially; then things seem to improve dramatically. What is the author saying about the impact of money on a relationship, and do you agree?
9. Motherhood is very important to Jane, and plays a significant role in the lives of other characters as well. Discuss the different mother–child relationships in the novel, and what it means to be a mother in this era.
10. Edward IV and Richard III have very different approaches to governance and court lifestyle. Both of their reigns end badly; how much of their failure do you believe is circumstance and how much a result of their policies?
11. Richard III and Jane both have strong views on love. Compare their beliefs: where do they match and where do they differ? Do you have more sympathy for one than the other?
12. Have you read other novels about this time period? If so, how would you rank this novel against the others you have read? If not, did Royal Mistress inspire you to learn more?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are many theories about the fate of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, also known as the Princes in the Tower. The author identifies Buckingham as the murderer in Royal Mistress, but there are other possibilities as well. Research the various theories and discuss which the group thinks is the likeliest (Wikipedia is a good place to start.)
2. Have each member name their favorite historical novel, movie, or TV show. Which time periods are the most popular in the group?
3. Throughout the book are funny little verses that Jane composes. Select a few to read aloud as a group, and vote on your favorite.
4. The Wars of the Roses has captured many authors’ attention. For other takes on the time period, read the following: Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series; Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour; Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time; and Shakespeare’s Richard III.
A Conversation with Anne Easter Smith
Why do you think modern readers are so fascinated by English history from this time period? By historical fiction in general?
We live in a time of great stress and turbulence. I think readers enjoy leaving the twenty-first century and their troubles behind for a few hours to visit a different time and place. Of course, medieval people had their difficulties and life struggles, too—who today would relish living in such unhygenic conditions; not knowing if their babies would last the week, let alone the first perilous five years; being stretched upon the rack; or being burned at the stake—but the very slowness in their pace of life is attractive to us in our crazy technological world. Historical fiction is pure escapism, but if I can pass on some knowledge about how people lived back then or what events took place that eventually led us to today, then I have done my job. Ten years ago, all that American readers and TV watchers knew about English history was the Tudors. Yes, it was an exciting period, but I happened to think, earlier than most, that the fifteenth century, when England was transitioning from medieval to Renaissance, had many more intriguing, compelling stories to tell.
Jane’s penance walk is incredibly rich in situational and geographic detail. How did you reconstruct what she would have seen and experienced?
All we know of Jane’s penance from the chronicles is that she “walked the streets of London in nothing but her shift and carrying a heavy taper, ending up in St. Paul’s prostrate before the priests.” Before I started writing Royal Mistress, I walked for hours through today’s City of London streets (the square mile of the financial district where most of London was situated in the fifteenth century) just to get a feeling for its size, and then I found a medieval street map of the city at the Guildhall Library. I blew it up and it is on my wall, showing tiny alleys and lanes that no longer exist, the exact placement of buildings (especially taverns, noble houses, and the ubiquitous churches), and where each of the many gates led on the outskirts. As Jane was in Ludgate gaol, it made sense to me that she would walk in a large loop around the huge cathedral (not the one that’s there now—the gothic one with its incredible spire burned down in 1665 and was rebuilt by Christopher Wren a few years later), and she would end up back at the front door of the church. Hampered by the rough stones that mangled her feet and the crowds who surged to witness this unusual punishment, I judged it may have taken her more than an hour to make the slow walk.
Jane is historically renowned for her merriness, which is a bit of a surprise given the life she led. What kept her from the bitterness and skepticism shown by other women of the court, like Elizabeth Woodville?
This is difficult to answer because we know very little about her character—except that she had a reputation for being a positive, quick-witted woman. That reputation was cemented in history by chroniclers who only observed her public life with Edward. Certainly we do not know if deep down inside she was unhappy and that, when she lost everything, she did not become bitter and twisted. She would not then have made a very compelling protagonist for a novel, would she? I took the Edward declaration of “merriest mistress” at face value and built my character around it.
In the Author’s Note, you mention that there were two historical Thomas Lynehams to choose from: one who died in 1516 and one who was around into the 1530s. Why did you choose the Lyneham, and therefore the ending, for Jane that you did?
Because I could not reconcile Jane begging in her sixties if I had chosen the second, longer-lived, and very successful Lyneham.
While the story centers mostly around Jane, other characters take center stage from time to time. How did you decide when to shift perspective from Jane to another person?
All my other books have been written in third-person limited, meaning that we rarely leave our heroine’s head. As Jane was a mistress of the king, she would not have been present at some of the most dramatic events and private conversations at court. She would have to rely on someone relaying information to her and that becomes tedious. How could I write about Edward arguing with Elizabeth about having yet another mistress if Jane could not be there to hear it? Once you make the decision to use the omniscient voice, all sorts of possibilities are open to you. I enjoyed jumping into Will Hastings’s head or even dried-up William Shore’s, and I loved being in Richard III’s!
You also mention in your Author’s Note that writing Richard III, a rather notorious historical figure, was a difficult process for you because of his and Jane’s antagonistic relationship. Tell us more! Did you ever consider skipping his viewpoint entirely?
Certainly not! I was a Richard III fan (a Ricardian) from the age of twenty-one when I read Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. I practically know what he ate for breakfast and lunch on any given day! I read everything there was to read about him and came to the conclusion long ago that he was not the monster Shakespeare led us to believe he was. My first book, A Rose for the Crown, was my attempt to get a wide audience to see the real Richard. I have never thought he was guilty of doing away with the princes in the Tower, and I understood why he acted the way he did in those drama-packed four months between Edward’s death and Richard’s coronation. But if I were looking at him purely from Jane’s, Hastings’s, or Elizabeth’s viewpoints, he would come across as the very usurper I had worked so hard to bury in my first book. I truly believe Richard thought he was following his rigid moral code and doing his duty by his brother, his nephews, and his country. Those looking at him from the outside saw him acting contrary to all they had come to expect from Edward, but they weren’t in his head. I was! The only decision I will be never be reconciled with was the execution of Hastings. I have tried, by looking at all sides, to present a plausible explanation.
Given that the ideal of romantic love is central to this novel, was it hard to avoid using a modern perspective on love and relationships while writing?
That is the bane of every serious historical novelist, and I have been on several literary festival panels discussing exactly how much modern-day sensibilities we ought to inject into our stories. The answer is that yes, my characters do have many modern-day thoughts, but I am hoping that my readers are relating to those characters, and if the characters’ thought processes are too distant from ours, they will make for an unlively, if not tedious, people.
You’ve now written five novels centered around the Wars of the Roses. What originally drew you to this time period? Is there another period you’re itching to write about?
Richard III was my draw to the Wars of the Roses initially. As for the second part, I have always enjoyed the Restoration and the Regency periods. I’m not sure if I’ll go there, though. I am so enmeshed in the medieval period that I feel I should continue to use my knowledge—and my library—before spending the next dozen years becoming as immersed in another period.
Are there genres aside from historical fiction that you enjoy reading?
I enjoy well-written contemporary novels, but they must be plot-driven, I have come to realize. I have a hard time with sci-fi and fantasy, I’m afraid. I’m very much a factual person.
Which writers and books do you take inspiration from?
For this book, I called upon my favorite of all writers for inspiration: Charles Dickens, the master of omniscient narration. I love Daphne du Maurier’s books, too. I aspire to tell a story as well as Ken Follett and Edward Rutherfurd, and to nail characterization like Jane Austen!
Are there any overlooked historical figures you would love to see given center stage, either by yourself or another writer?
Hundreds! I am always interested in reading about “celebs” other than the royals (especially those in the arts), but it seems right now that royalty wears the crown in historical fiction. I love reading about dynamic, intelligent, or creative women who would have been famous had they been born male.