The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

The Kings Sister The King’s Sister is a light but enjoyable historical novel set in the 14th century and telling the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster. As the daughter of John of Gaunt, uncle to the young King Richard II, Elizabeth does not have the freedom to marry as she chooses. At seventeen, an age when she is hoping for romantic love, she is forced into marriage with the eight-year-old Earl of Pembroke who is more interested in parrots and dogs than in his new wife.

As she waits impatiently for her husband to grow up, Elizabeth meets the King’s half-brother, John Holland. Holland is charming and charismatic, a man where Pembroke is a boy, and despite the warnings of her friends and family, Elizabeth soon finds herself breaking her marriage vows. An annulment follows and Elizabeth weds again, this time to the man she loves. But when King Richard is deposed and replaced on the throne by Elizabeth’s own brother, now Henry IV, she finds herself in an impossible position. With her husband still loyal to his half-brother, the former king, Elizabeth must decide where her own loyalties lie: with John Holland or with Henry?

I’ve read other novels set in this time period but I’ve never read one that focuses on Elizabeth of Lancaster as a main character. The King’s Sister is narrated by Elizabeth herself so we are able to get very close to her, accompanying her through all the ups and downs of her life, sharing her agony as she is forced to make a decision nobody should ever have to make. She is portrayed as a headstrong, defiant young woman used to getting her own way, who gives little thought to the consequences of her actions. While I understood Elizabeth’s disappointment with her first marriage, I did feel sorry for the little Earl of Pembroke who couldn’t help being young, after all – and I often felt frustrated with her for refusing to heed anyone’s advice and ignoring the warnings she was given against John Holland. However, Elizabeth is aware that she has flaws and that she can be selfish, and she does develop as a person over the course of the novel, which made it possible for me to have some sympathy for her.

Although I didn’t like Elizabeth very much (or John Holland either – I agreed with the general opinion of Elizabeth’s friends that he was untrustworthy and self-centred) there were some great secondary characters. I particularly liked Joan of Kent, mother of both John Holland and Richard II, and Katherine Swynford, the Duke of Lancaster’s wife. These are both women I have read about before, Joan in A Triple Knot by Emma Campion and Katherine in the wonderful Katherine by Anya Seton, and Anne O’Brien draws parallels between their stories and Elizabeth’s. All three are women who had to fight to be with the man they loved, despite the disapproval of everyone around them.

Like the other Anne O’Brien book I’ve read (The Forbidden Queen), this is a novel which concentrates on love and romance, feelings and emotions rather than on politics or battles. However, the author still manages to make the 14th century come alive with descriptions of jousts and tournaments, balls and court gatherings. We are given just enough information on the historical background, the political situation and the ever-changing alliances at court that I came away from this novel with a better understanding of the time period and a feeling that I’d learned something new. With over 500 pages The King’s Sister is a long book and really felt like a long book – even while I was absorbed in the story – but I did enjoy it and look forward to exploring O’Brien’s earlier novels which I haven’t read yet.

Meeting Katherine de Valois

I have read two historical fiction novels recently both on the subject of the fifteenth century French princess, Katherine of Valois, the wife of King Henry V of England. The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien and The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson both tell Katherine’s story but in very different ways and as I’ve read them so close together, I thought it would be interesting to combine my reviews into one post.

The Forbidden Queen Let’s start with The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien, my favourite of the two books. The novel is narrated by Katherine herself and covers most of the significant events of her life. The youngest daughter of King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, Katherine is married to Henry V several years after the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Queen Isabeau has agreed to a settlement with Henry that would make him heir to the throne of France in place of Katherine’s own younger brother, the Dauphin.

When Henry dies just a few years into their marriage, Katherine falls in love with his cousin, Edmund Beaufort – but does Edmund love her in return or is he more interested in the power he would gain as husband of the Queen Dowager? It’s not until Katherine gets to know her Welsh Master of Household, Owen Tudor, that she finally has a chance of true happiness.

This is quite a romance-based novel, but maybe that’s to be expected as Katherine sadly didn’t seem to have much of a part to play in politics or in the reign of her son, the young Henry VI. O’Brien did such a good job of making me see how Katherine was desperate for love and affection and how disappointed she was when she realised that she was going to get neither of these from the King. Henry V was not portrayed as a cruel or deliberately unkind husband, just one who was insensitive and indifferent, and it was so sad when Katherine realised the true nature of the man she was married to. But while I could have a lot of sympathy for the young, naïve Katherine I did start to wish that, as she got older, she would become more mature and independent. It was sad and frustrating to see her making the same mistakes again and again, looking for love where there was obviously none.

Although Katherine sometimes irritated me, I did like her. I also thought O’Brien’s characterisation of the three very different men in Katherine’s life was very well done: the distant, preoccupied King, interested only in battle strategies and military campaigns; the charismatic but ambitious and untrustworthy Edmund Beaufort; and the proud, quiet Welshman Owen Tudor. This is the first Anne O’Brien book I’ve read and I was quite impressed with the overall quality of her writing and her ability to tell a good story.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

The Agincourt Bride Now for The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson. In this book, the author has used the alternative spelling, Catherine, rather than Katherine, so I have done the same in this review. This is actually the first of two volumes and covers only the early part of Catherine’s life, from her childhood until shortly after her marriage to Henry. The sequel, The Tudor Bride, is due out later this year.

This novel is narrated by Catherine’s nursemaid, Guillaumette Dupain (known as Mette). Mette, the daughter of a baker, is brought to the royal household to act as wet nurse for the baby Catherine, having recently had a stillborn child of her own. With Catherine neglected and ignored by her parents, Mette becomes almost like a mother to the princess. They are separated during Catherine’s years in the convent at Poissy but are reunited when Catherine is thirteen. Despite the attempts of others to part them again, Mette is devoted to Catherine and manages to stay with her, becoming her Mistress of the Wardrobe and her friend and confidante.

While both this book and the one above are at the lighter end of the historical fiction range (as you would probably expect from the cover designs and titles) this one was a bit too light for me. I also thought it was too long and I’m not sure there was really enough material for a book this length focusing on only the first years of Catherine’s life. Mette’s own personal story didn’t interest me much; her main function in the novel is to provide the perspective of someone close to Catherine, and there have been so many historical fiction novels published in recent years narrated by a conveniently placed servant that I think it’s becoming boring and formulaic. Seeing Catherine only through Mette’s eyes, I couldn’t engage with her the way I did in Anne O’Brien’s book and as a result I didn’t like this version of Catherine very much.

Joanna Hickson does go into a lot of depth in areas of Catherine’s early life that O’Brien didn’t have time to explore. I was intrigued by the storyline involving John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, who is portrayed here as a violent monster and I would be interested to know if there’s any evidence that he really behaved like this. We also get to know Catherine’s brothers and sisters much better than in the O’Brien book. None of them are particularly endearing characters, but Mette, having known them all since they were children, displays an amazing amount of patience and understanding with each of them. Their mother, Isabeau, comes across as completely selfish and heartless, and their father, Charles VI, suffers from a mental illness that causes him to believe he is made of glass and will shatter if anyone touches him. I got a real feeling for the sadness and loneliness Catherine and her siblings may have experienced as children, and could also see how France had been left in a vulnerable position without strong leadership.

The Agincourt Bride ends as Catherine travels to England for her coronation. It’s quite an abrupt ending, but presumably the next book is going to pick up the story from this point.

Having read both of these novels I’m glad to have had the opportunity to learn about a period of history I previously knew very little about. If you only want to read one book about Catherine (or Katherine) of Valois, I would say read The Forbidden Queen as it covers Catherine’s whole life and I enjoyed it a lot more than The Agincourt Bride. I would be happy to read more books by Anne O’Brien but I’m not sure about Joanna Hickson yet and will have to decide whether or not I want to continue with The Tudor Bride.