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.

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Having read six of Anne O’Brien’s previous novels, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this one, but I was wrong. It couldn’t be more different! I’m not sure that every aspect of it really worked for me, but it’s nice to see authors trying something new now and then.

The Queen’s Rival is the story of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. As a prominent member of the House of York, Cecily has an important role to play in the Wars of the Roses, yet she is often just a minor character in novels set during this period. Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose is the only other book I’ve read which focuses specifically on Cecily, so I was keen to see how O’Brien would choose to tell her story.

The way O’Brien chooses to tell her story is through a series of letters sent between Cecily and various members of her family, as well as diary entries, prayers, recipes and articles from a (fictitious) newspaper called England’s Chronicle. From Cecily’s perspective we see all of the major events of the Wars of the Roses unfold – the attempts of her husband, the Duke of York, to claim the throne of England for himself; the events that lead to the defeat of Henry VI and to Cecily’s eldest son Edward becoming king; the controversy surrounding Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville; and finally, the end of Edward’s reign and the coronation of Cecily’s youngest son, Richard.

The epistolary format gives the story a feeling of immediacy and intimacy, especially where Cecily is exchanging letters with her sisters Anne and Katherine (both of whom also see their fortunes rise and fall several times throughout the novel). However, as all of the other O’Brien novels I’ve read have been written in ordinary prose, this change in style and structure was completely unexpected and, as I’ve said, not completely to my taste. I particularly disliked the excerpts from the Chronicle, which were written in the gossipy style of a modern tabloid newspaper, but I’m sure Anne O’Brien knew that newspapers in this form didn’t exist in the 15th century, so I do appreciate that it was intended as a bit of fun, as well as a way to provide information that might not otherwise have been available to Cecily.

Still, I did find the book entertaining overall. This is such a fascinating period of history with so much still open to debate, so many mysteries and controversies, that it never fails to interest me – although sadly, the novel ends just as Richard III is coming to the throne, so the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is not explored. Cecily herself comes across as an intelligent, politically astute woman who is loyal to her family, but without being blind to their faults. I did wonder about the title: was she a ‘rival’ to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, or Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen? It could refer to either or both, I think.

Despite this probably being my least favourite Anne O’Brien book so far, I will still look forward to her next novel, The Royal Game, about the 15th century Paston family, which is due to be published later this year.

Book 3/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

Red Rose White Rose A few years ago I read Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride, the first of two novels on the life of Catherine de Valois. I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to read the sequel, The Tudor Bride, but when I saw that she had written a new novel telling the story of Cicely Neville (the mother of Edward IV and Richard III) I couldn’t wait to read it. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of history but I haven’t read very much about Cicely and I was interested in learning more.

The novel begins in 1433 and introduces us to the seventeen-year-old Cicely Neville. As the youngest daughter of the late Earl of Westmorland, Cicely belongs to one of the richest and most powerful families in the north of England. Born at Raby Castle in County Durham, Cicely is known as ‘the Rose of Raby’ – but her brothers have also bestowed on her the less flattering nickname of ‘Proud Cis’. Cicely has never given much thought to the children of her father’s first marriage – a branch of the family who feel they have been pushed aside and disinherited – but when she is briefly held hostage by one of these relatives, Sir John Neville, she discovers just how far they will go to reclaim their lands and titles.

Restored to her own family at Raby, Cicely is married off to Richard, Duke of York, to whom she has been betrothed since she was nine. As a descendant of Edward III, Richard believes his own claim to the throne is stronger than that of the present king, Henry VI, and as his frustrations with Henry’s weak leadership increase, so do his ambitions. Soon the House of York finds itself at war with the King and the House of Lancaster, a particularly traumatic situation for Cicely, with not only her husband in danger but also her two eldest sons, Edward and Edmund, her brother Hal and her nephew, the Earl of Warwick. But even while she fears for the men in her life, Cicely is haunted by memories of another man – Sir John Neville, the man she truly loves.

Raby Castle I enjoyed Red Rose, White Rose and thought it was a big improvement on The Agincourt Bride. It was the first half of the book that I found the most interesting, possibly because I’ve read about the Wars of the Roses, the battles and the rise of the House of York many times before, whereas Cicely’s early story was something different (even though it seemed to be largely fictional – Hickson states in her author’s note that there was no historical basis for the affair between Cicely and John Neville). I also loved the fact that these early chapters were set in the north, in an area I’m familiar with; I visited Cicely’s childhood home, Raby Castle, just two years ago so could picture it very clearly (see my photograph above).

Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that while part of the book is narrated by Cicely herself, the rest is narrated by her illegitimate half-brother, Cuthbert. Most of the characters in the novel are based on real people, but Cuthbert is not and I’m not sure that I really liked the inclusion of a fictitious storyline alternating with the historical one. I also thought the two narrative voices felt too similar and if the name of the narrator hadn’t been given in the chapter headings, I would have had difficulty distinguishing between the two. However, I did like Cuthbert as a character and he takes us to places that Cicely isn’t able to go herself, such as onto the battlefield, so he does have an important role to play in the story.

There was a good balance of war, politics, romance and adventure in this novel; there’s also a huge amount of historical detail – if you’re expecting a very light, easy read I think you may be surprised! This is a long, complex story and some concentration is needed to keep track of the relationships between the characters. I found it particularly interesting to read about Cicely’s daughter, Anne, forced into marriage against her will to her father’s ward, Harry Holland, the Duke of Exeter, and finding herself on the Lancastrian side of the conflict – as does Cicely’s sister, another Anne. The way these characters felt about their divided loyalties and how they coped with the tensions it caused within the family was portrayed very well.

Finally, while I think Red Rose, White Rose is the perfect title for a book on the Wars of the Roses, it did bother me slightly that there were so many references to the red rose being a symbol of Lancaster. According to the non-fiction I’ve read on the subject (including most recently The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones), although the red rose had possibly been associated with the House of Lancaster since the 13th century, it wasn’t commonly used as a symbol until Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth when he combined it with the white rose of York to form the Tudor rose. I don’t think the Lancastrian army would have been wearing red rose badges as described in the novel, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

Now I’m wondering who and what Joanna Hickson’s next book will be about. The way this one ended leaves plenty of scope to continue the story of the Wars of the Roses!

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review