I just finished reading Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory. Apologies for not getting this review done sooner–Easter holiday and such.. Anyway, Gregory is one of my favorite authors, mostly because she writes historical fiction, and more importantly, historical fiction set in medieval England. I LOVE it. The writing is no Shakespeare, but I’m drawn into the story and lives of the characters and, of course, I love learning a bit of history as well.
Lady of the Rivers really looks into a few key figures during the War of the Roses, or Cousins’ War. The civil wars were during the latter part of the fifteenth century in which the direct descendants of King Edward III, the houses of York and Lancaster (whose emblems were the white rose and red rose respectively), fought for the crown. The current king, Henry VI (a Lancaster), was mentally ill and surrounded himself with unpopular advisors, married a French woman who was hated by the Englishmen, gave away lands and wealth to close friends, brought a struggling Enland further into bankruptcy, and basically withered away while England fell to pieces. He did father a son with his wife, Margaret of Anjou, though there is some speculation on this because he was mentally ill at the time and she had some close male advisors herself.
The novel follows Jaquetta of Luxembourg and begins with the capture of Joan of Arc. Joan is being imprisoned at Jaquetta’s aunt and uncles house in France. At this time, Joan and Jaquetta are able to talk to one another. Joan, as most of you know, was able to speak directly to God and act upon the instructions given her (or so she said), leading France to victory in many battles against England and crowning a French king. She was released to England and found guilty of heresy and burned alive.
Joan is used to introduce the gift of Sight in the novel, which Jaquetta has inherited from her ancestor, Melusina, the water goddess. The gift of Sight somewhat irritates me because although Jaquetta can “see” images into the future, as the novel progresses, Jaquetta becomes wary of the gift and the introduction of Melusina seems almost obsolete. I guess it seems necessary since there were so many superstitions in medieval England…not to mention women and men being burned for their “knowledge” which many related to witchcraft…so in that sense, I was always fearful of Jaquetta’s gift and what would happen to her.
Jaquetta is married off to the Duke of Bedford, uncle to King Henry VI, at an early age (although the Duke is old enough to be her father). He apparently knows of her “gift” and wants only to use her to see what the future has in store for England and the king. The Duke is extremely loyal to the king and does everything in his power to come to his aide in England and in France, however detrimental it may be to his health. His assistant, or squire, or whatever they call them, is Richard Woodville, a dashing young fellow who falls in love with Jaquetta. When the Duke passes away, Jaquetta secretly marries Woodville for love and quickly becomes pregnant.
King Henry VI is married to Margaret of Anjou, a French noblewoman, and Jaquetta, being French herself, is used as somewhat of a counselor to Margaret. Sadly, Jaquetta spends much of her life apart from Woodville as he is sent to different parts of England and France to fight for the crown…however, every time he comes home she seems to get pregnant. So she has a gazillion kids, her husband is constantly away fighting, and she is trying to help a hated French queen with a mentally ill king rule a country that is bankrupt and quickly falling into the hands of the Yorks. Book review: done. Just kidding. But really, it seems like that could easily sum up the novel.
Although Jaquetta was clearly the heroine, I found myself intrigued and impressed with Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England. This was a woman who refused to give up the crown to the Yorks and powerfully plunged England into war for decades in her husbands name. She was incrediably strong willed and honest and an adamant and unforgiving ruler.
Although I don’t think this is one of Gregory’s best works, she is a spectacular author and gives a pretty good outline to the devastating War of the Roses and the key figures involved.