Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

This impressive first novel by Annie Garthwaite tells the story of one of the women at the heart of the Wars of the Roses. As a member of the powerful Neville family, wife of Richard, Duke of York and mother to two kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Cecily Neville was a strong and intelligent woman who managed to wield some political influence at a time when it was rare for women to do so. This makes her the ideal subject for a book set during this period – and in fact, there have already been several, such as Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson and The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien.

Beginning in 1431 and ending in 1461, Cecily is set during the reign of Henry VI, whose weakness as king and inability to rule effectively leads to political instability and eventually to war. Cecily’s husband, Richard of York, is one of several noblemen trying to gain control of the king and his kingdom, while Henry’s young queen, Margaret of Anjou, does everything she can to hold on to power and keep the throne safe for her son. I won’t describe the plot of the novel in any more detail here; you may already be familiar with the history and if you’re not, it’s far too complex for me to explain in a few paragraphs! If you read the book, you’ll certainly learn all you need to know.

Cecily, as she is portrayed here, is not a very lovable or endearing person. She is driven by ambition and pushes her husband Richard towards first of all trying to displace Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, as the king’s closest adviser, and then to aim at the throne himself. As a medieval noblewoman, Cecily is obviously limited in what she can actually do – battles, for example, are played out in the background of her story and she only learns the outcome afterwards from other people – but she takes any opportunity she can find to shape the future of her family and her country, whether this means securing advantageous marriages for her children (she had twelve, seven of whom lived past infancy) or writing to Margaret of Anjou to try to get her husband restored to the king’s favour. Richard, in comparison, is portrayed as weaker and less decisive and Cecily, who almost plays the role of Lady Macbeth, becomes frustrated by his lack of ruthlessness.

The book is written in the third person present tense, which is not a favourite style of mine. I sometimes find it distracting and distancing, but in the hands of some authors it works very well and I think Annie Garthwaite does a good job of using it to give the story a feeling of immediacy, while also giving us access to Cecily’s intimate thoughts and feelings. I was often reminded of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – not just because of the writing style, but also because both books feature a complex, flawed protagonist and focus on political intrigue close to the throne. This is not the light and fluffy kind of historical fiction and it does require some concentration, particularly if this period of history is new to you. The only problem, for me, was a slight lack of emotion; Cecily’s story was fascinating, but I never felt very moved by it.

This novel only covers the early stages of the Wars of the Roses, ending with the Battle of Towton in 1461. As Cecily Neville lived until 1495, I hope there is going to be a sequel telling the rest of her story!

Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 34/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.