Maid Marian
by Elsa Watson (Guinea-Bissau 1996–98)
Crown Publishers
307 pages
April 2004

    Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)

    THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD gets a new spin in Elsa Watson’s elegant debut, Maid Marian, a novel filled with adventure, romance, twelfth-century intrigue and a dollop of Peace Corps philosophy. As an orphaned child of landed nobility, Marian is a ward of the king and thus a political pawn. Wed at age five to Hugh of Sencaster, she becomes a widow at seventeen when Hugh dies under mysterious circumstances. Following her mourning period, Marian learns of communication between Lady Pernelle, her former mother-in-law, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who holds the key to Marian’s fate. Distrustful of Lady Pernelle, who’d balked before returning Marian’s lands following Hugh’s death, Marian seeks out the renowned Robin Hood to help intercept a letter between the two women. From it, she learns the queen has granted permission for marriage between Marian and Lady Pernelle’s youngest son.
         Dreading the prison of a loveless marriage again and unable to reconcile with the treacherous Lady Pernelle, Marian seizes the opportunity to escape when Robin Hood shows up on her wedding morning. She joins his band in Sherwood Forest and soon finds her friendship with Robin deepening into love. Before they can settle together, however, they must resolve the issue of Marian’s lands, forfeited by her disappearance. After living with a peasant family, Marian disguises herself as a servant girl and gains employment at Lady Pernelle’s estate, where she stumbles upon greater intrigue than ever expected.
         As a longtime fan of Pamela Kaufman’s similarly-themed Shield of Three Lions, I enjoyed this evocative return to Britain of the turbulent Middle Ages. Watson’s lyrical, polished prose goes a long way in smoothing over bumpy spots in the story. Highlights in the book include Marion’s overnight visit to her servant Annie’s village home, a vivid scene that could have been taken from a Peace Corps memoir. Through the long, awkward evening, Marian struggles with the strangeness of different customs, language and food. Both uncomfortable with and shocked by the substandard accommodations, she wonders how she’s going to survive the evening, much less the night. (Sounding familiar?) Also entertaining are the excellent descriptions of court life for a young noblewoman in the twelfth century, including the unlikely perspective of a five-year-old on her wedding day (wear stiff clothes, tug at heavy jewelry, recite words and then run off to play again).
         The story’s weakness, for me, lies three-quarters into the story, when two key issues are resolved. With a happy ending all but guaranteed and only sixty pages remaining, the page-turning momentum subsides. The recounting of how Robin and Marian scheme to outsmart the royals for repossession of Marian’s land reads almost as a tacked-on story, one that relies heavily on coincidence, fabulous luck and excessive explanation.
         Additionally, the story’s credibility becomes strained when Marian disguises herself (by changing her hair color) and returns to Lady Pernelle’s household to work and spy. She gradually becomes indispensable to Lady Pernelle as an advisor and a close confidant, yet Lady Pernelle never recognizes the daughter-in-law she knew for a dozen years. As well, the divulging of important information when Lady Pernelle, assuming Marian understands only Saxon, speaks her thoughts out loud in French, seems entirely too convenient. These contrivances, however, succeed in giving the story a final burst of momentum that produces a “happily ever after” conclusion that left me smiling.
         The strength of this book, for me, lies in its fascinating portrayal of twelfth-century norms, social hierarchies and the musings of a noblewoman thrown into a world she’d overlooked. I see Watson’s Peace Corps experience reflected in Marian’s growing awareness of the plight of the oppressed, as she lives and toils alongside them. Marian, we know, will be a more compassionate noble for having spent time on the “other side,” much the same way the RPCV’s life is permanently altered by their Peace Corps experience.
         I found Maid Marian to be an accomplished debut effort and a delightful, easy read. Watson, who began her novel writing career by candlelight during her Peace Corps years, has used facts, legend and a dusting of fairy tale to weave a compelling portrait of what might have been, as well as offering readers (particularly young females) an empowering lesson on striving for freedom amid life’s oppression. To fans of Shield of Three Lions and The Mists of Avalon, and anyone who enjoys romantic historical fiction, I’d give this novel two thumbs up.

    Terez Rose’s writing has appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Literary Mama and Writers Journal. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004) and the upcoming Migrants and Stowaways (Knoxville Writers’ Guild, October 2004). She has recently completed her first novel.