Silent Songbird is the seventh installment Melanie Dickerson's historical fairy-tale romance series, the Hagenheim series. Seventeen year old Evangeline lives in Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire, England with her maid, Muriel. Evangeline is a ward of King Richard II who is her cousin. Her father was the king's deceased uncle, Lionel of Antwerp. She and Richard have been friends since they were children.
Evangeline decides to flee Berkhamsted Castle to avoid being forced to marry Lord Shiveley who is an older, trusted advisor of King Richard. Her appeal to Richard fails to move the king to change his mind. Determined to escape that night, Evangeline disguises herself as a peasant and flees with Muriel. They fall in with a group leaving the castle after selling wheat and other goods during the day. That group is led by a young nobleman, Westley le Wyse who is returning to his family's estate in Glynval. When he meets Evangeline and Muriel he agrees to allow them to travel with his group when Muriel tells him that Evangeline is mute as a result of an attack by her mistress.
On the journey to Glynval, the group encounters men on horseback, wearing the livery of Lord Shiveley and King Richard. They inform Westley's group that they are looking for two women, one of whom is tall and has red hair. Because the woman they are looking for is not mute like Eva, they tell Shiveley's men they have not seen the women.
When they arrive at Glynval they are taken to Westley's father's castle, which is much smaller than that of Berkhamsted Castle. Mistress Alice assigns Muriel who goes by the name of Mildred, to churn butter while Evangeline is sent to work in the fields, scything wheat. It soon becomes apparent that Evangeline is incapable of doing any menial tasks. Everything she is assigned, she is unable to do and usually ends in disaster. First she almost seriously wounds Reeve Folsham with the scythe. Westley intervenes and has Evangeline sent to the castle where Lady le Wyse assigns her to work under Golda, the head cook. Working with Sabina, Nicola, Berta and Cecily, Eva is unable to shell peas. She finds it difficult to draw water from the well and when sent to put the slop into the pigs' trough, Evangeline inadvertently allows the animals to escape. However, with Westley's help, they return the pigs to their pen.
Westley wants to know more about Eva's injury to her voice. He tells her that his friend, John Underhill's father was killed during the peasant uprising. Westley's father gave his servants a decent wage and lessened their work hours while John's father did not. John is angry as Westley and his father, Lord le Wyse and blames them for his father's death. Eva gets Westley to understand that she can read and write and this leads him to invite her to the castle that night to read the Bible together.
Muriel attempts to convince Evangeline to return to Hertfordshire, telling her it is her duty to marry whomever the king chooses, but she refuses. Evangeline hands have become badly blistered and it is Westley who treats them with a special salve made by his mother. Given the day off, she wanders along the bank of the river and is witness to Westley being attacked by two men. He is struck on the head and falls into the river. Evangeline rescues him and unable to pull him out, begins screaming for help. Sabina, the miller's daughter arrives to help and is astonished that Evangeline can speak. Together they along with several men get Westley back to the manor house. Sabina who intends to marry Westley, threatens to reveal Evangeline's secret if she takes credit for his rescue.
Evangeline realizes she will now have to reveal her secret because she knows Sabina will tell and she also believes Westley is in danger. However revealing her secret may mean Evangeline will be sent back to Berkhamsted castle to marry the nefarious Lord Shiveley. However, Westley's family has a connection to Lord Shiveley that may just end up saving Evangeline.
Silent Songbird stays true to the tropes that are common in historical romance fiction. In this case, a virginal heroine runs away to avoid marriage to a rake only to meet the virtuous, handsome, kind man of her dreams whom she can't marry because he's beneath her station in life. However, the two end up marrying and living happily ever after.
There are essentially two storylines in Silent Songbird centered around the two main characters; Evangeline's forced marriage to Lord Shiveley and Westley's conflict with John Underhill. The novel opens with Evangeline's story. Dickerson uses the threat of Evangeline's imminent marriage to draw her readers into the story. Evangeline devises a scheme of pretending she's mute but this causes her and Muriel problems. Confronted with Westley's generosity and kindness, Evangeline feels enormous guilt over deceiving him about not being able to speak. It's probably unlikely that Evangeline would have be able to avoid a forced marriage in the 14th century. As Muriel repeatedly tells Evangeline in the novel, "Romantic love is very well to dream about to imagine what it might be like to fall in love and marry and live in bliss for the rest of your life...But it is not the way of kings and those with royal blood." Evangeline likely would have been prepared for the eventually of marriage, even to a much older man. No other opportunities would have be available for her as a ward of the king, other than entering a convent. In the story however Westley's parents who are nobility are uncharacteristically determined to help Evangeline even if it means losing everything. "Losing everything is sometimes the price one must pay for doing the right thing. I could not save my cousin, but perhaps...perhaps we can save the king's..." As it turns out they are more than acquainted with Lord Shiveley.
In Westley's narrative, Dickerson provides some of the historical backstory that led to the conflict between Westley and John. Set in England in 1384, the story occurs after the Peasant Revolts of 1381. The black death had ravaged the population in 1340 resulting in a shortage of labour. England was involved in an ongoing conflict with France that would become known at the Hundred Years War. High taxes and the practice of serfdom also contributed to the revolts in which some of the noblemen and royal officials were killed. King Richard met with the rebels and was able to successfully put down the revolt. The roots of the revolt form the basis for the major conflict in the novel between Westley le Wyse and John Underhill.
Silent Songbird is highly romanticized and idealistic; Westley is handsome, a Bible-reading Christian, concerned with everyone's welfare. His foil is John Underhill, the opposite of Westley in every way. Similarly, Evangeline is a sweet, caring, innocent girl, the opposite of the conniving, mean-spirited Sabina.
Fans of Dickerson will enjoy this novel as it follows the formula of her other books in this series.
Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson
Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson 2016