Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (re-read)

After re-reading Susan Howatch’s Penmarric last year, I decided to continue with a re-read of her 1974 novel, Cashelmara. I remembered this one as my least favourite of the three big historical novels I read by Howatch, so I was interested to see whether I still felt the same way about it now.

Cashelmara, like Penmarric (and The Wheel of Fortune, which I will also be re-reading soon), retells Plantagenet history in a more recent setting. Here we see Edward I, Edward II and Edward III of England recreated as Edward de Salis, his son Patrick and grandson Ned, a fictional 19th century family. No knowledge of the historical characters is necessary but it does add another layer of interest if you can spot the parallels.

The novel opens in 1859 with Edward de Salis, a widower with several adult children, visiting cousins in New York and returning to England with a new bride – the much younger Marguerite. Edward is keen to introduce his wife to his daughters, but they prove to be disappointingly hostile to Marguerite, who is only a few years older than they are. It is only Patrick, his son and heir, who makes her feel welcome and wanted, but Marguerite senses a tension between father and son that she doesn’t quite understand.

After Edward’s death, Patrick inherits his father’s lands and title, and as his story unfolds we start to see why his relationship with Edward had been so strained. Marguerite is pleased when he marries her niece, Sarah, but it soon becomes clear that it is not going to be a happy marriage. Patrick’s fortune is quickly lost through gambling and poor financial decisions and the two are forced to move to Cashelmara, the de Salis estate in Ireland. It is here that Sarah gets to know Patrick’s beloved friend Derry Stranahan and discovers that she is destined to always take second place in her husband’s affections…

At this point, if you do know the history on which this book is based, you’ve probably guessed that Sarah represents Isabella, Edward II’s queen, and Derry the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. Later in the novel you will also meet characters who correspond to Isabella’s lover Roger Mortimer, to Edward II’s other favourite Hugh Despenser, and to Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. If you don’t know the history, though, don’t worry because the story of the de Salis family can still be followed and enjoyed even if you’re completely unaware of the similarities with their 14th century counterparts.

The novel is divided into six sections, each one with a different narrator – Edward, Marguerite, Patrick, Sarah, Maxwell Drummond and Ned. I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters (apart from maybe Marguerite), but they are all complex, interesting, multi-faceted human beings each with their own positive and negative qualities. As with Penmarric, the shifting perspectives are very effective, because characters who had seemed unpleasant and unappealing when seen through the eyes of others suddenly become much more sympathetic when they get the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Sarah, in particular, is forced to go through some terrible ordeals during her marriage to Patrick; there are some dark moments in each of the six narratives, but Sarah’s story is surely the darkest and bleakest of them all.

Howatch’s choice of 19th century Ireland as the setting for the novel is perfect as there are plenty of historical events and issues which she can use to move the plot forward while continuing to mirror the Plantagenet storyline. The effects of famine and poverty, the campaign for Home Rule under Charles Stewart Parnell, the civil unrest surrounding the evictions of tenants, and the lives of Irish immigrants in America are all woven into the story. Cashelmara is a fascinating novel on many levels and I enjoyed my re-read, but I did find it very slow in places and for a while in the middle it seemed to go on forever. I never really became so immersed in the story that I couldn’t put it down. I do remember loving The Wheel of Fortune much more and I’m looking forward to reading that one again too, hopefully in the near future.

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

The Plantagenets As someone who has always read mainly fiction, I have been making an effort to read more non-fiction. The type of non-fiction books I find myself drawn to tend to be books about history or biographies of historical figures; I’ve read a few of these recently and The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is one of the best I’ve read. It’s a very long book at almost 700 pages but as the book covers two centuries of history that’s not surprising!

The book begins in the year 1120 with the wreck of the White Ship in which King Henry I lost his only son and heir. This led to the period of English history known as The Anarchy, a civil war with the country divided between supporters of Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and of his nephew, Stephen. It was the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, the future Henry II, who was England’s first Plantagenet king. Dan Jones tells the story of not only Henry II’s reign, but the reigns of all the Plantagenets who followed, up to and including Richard II who was deposed in 1399. Of course there were several more Plantagenet kings after Richard II, but Jones does explain why he chose to end the book at this point.

I love reading about the Plantagenets and find them far more interesting than the Tudors. However, I have to admit that most of my knowledge of them comes from reading historical fiction and while I certainly think it’s possible to learn through fiction, it was good to have the opportunity to read a factual account of the period. Actually, I found this book almost as entertaining and compelling as a novel anyway; Dan Jones does a great job of making the historical figures he’s writing about come to life and conveying the drama of some of the most important events of their reigns. Instead of just telling us that Henry I’s son died in a shipwreck, for example, he describes the sails of the ship billowing in the wind, the shouts of the crew and the freezing water pouring into the ship. This makes the book very readable, though despite it not being too academic it still feels thoroughly researched and I never had any reason to doubt the accuracy.

Before beginning this book, there were some Plantagenet kings whose lives I was more familiar with than others. I found that I already had quite a good knowledge of Henry II and his relationships with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, his sons and daughters, the knight William Marshal and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. And I knew the basic facts about Richard I (the Lionheart) and his crusades, and about his brother, King John. The story of the final king featured in the book, Richard II, was also familiar to me, but I had less knowledge of the others in between – Henry III and the three Edwards (I, II and III). I enjoyed learning about Simon de Montfort’s rebellion during the reign of Henry III, the 1326 invasion of England by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and the possible fate of Edward II, all subjects I had previously known very little about.

The Plantagenets would be a great choice for any history lover looking for an accessible introduction to a fascinating time period. I’m hoping for a second volume covering the 15th century and the Wars of the Roses.

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

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

This is the fourth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series which looks at the Wars of the Roses (the series of conflicts in the 15th century between the House of York and the House of Lancaster) from a female perspective. The others in the series are The White Queen, the story of Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, The Red Queen, which follows Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and The Lady of the Rivers, the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta. This one, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, focuses on the life of Anne Neville.

Anne is the daughter of the powerful nobleman Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker for the part he played in putting Edward IV on the throne in place of Henry VI. When Edward marries the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville despite Warwick’s attempts to negotiate a marriage for him in France, Warwick changes allegiance and rebels against the King he had once helped raise to power.

Warwick has no male heirs, but he does have two daughters, Isabel and Anne, and is determined to make one of them Queen of England. Anne, our narrator, is only eight years old at the beginning of the book but soon both she and her sister become caught up in their father’s political machinations. Isabel is married to Edward IV’s brother George and Anne to Henry VI’s son, Edward of Lancaster. But after Warwick’s rebellion fails and Anne finds herself widowed, she marries again – this time to the Duke of Gloucester, the man who will become Richard III.

I’m sorry if I’ve made this sound very confusing, but it was a confusing period of history and Philippa Gregory does a good job of presenting the information in a way that is easy for the reader to follow and understand even if you’ve never read about the period before. Although this is the fourth in the series, these books could be read in any order and all four also work as standalone novels as Gregory does not assume that the reader has any knowledge of events that happened in the previous books. However, reading the whole series helps to build up a full and well-balanced picture of the period. I love the way the books overlap, showing us some of the same events but from different perspectives. This book, for example, seen through Anne Neville’s eyes, is extremely biased against Elizabeth Woodville and her family, the Rivers – but if you also read The White Queen you get Elizabeth’s point of view which is obviously very different!

Like The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers, this book has strong themes of witchcraft and magic. Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta were supposedly descended from the water goddess, Melusina, and Gregory suggests that they might have had magical powers. There’s a lot of focus on this in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, with Anne becoming more and more convinced that Elizabeth is using witchcraft to attack her family, to whistle up storms and put curses on people. This is one aspect of the series that just hasn’t been working for me; I feel that this period of history is already interesting enough without needing to bring in an element of fantasy.

Richard III is one of my favourite historical figures and I was happy enough with the way he is portrayed in this book. He’s not perfect, but he’s certainly not the villain of Shakespeare’s play either – he comes across as a loyal brother and husband and a good king who really cares about the future of his country. This book is also more sympathetic towards George, the Duke of Clarence, than any other novel I’ve read and it was refreshing to be shown the good sides of his character as well as the bad. The characterisation of Anne, though, was not quite what I would have expected or hoped for. In other books that I’ve read about her, she has been portrayed as quiet and gentle with a lot of inner strength and dignity, but this version of Anne doesn’t display much strength or courage, while being too ready to blame other people (usually Elizabeth Woodville) when things go wrong. But I did think the relationship between Anne and Isabel was handled well, showing how they were friends one minute, rivals the next – the ‘sisters’ aspect of the book reminded me of Mary and Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl.

This was not my favourite of the Cousins’ War books but I’m enjoying the series and will look forward to the next instalment. Apparently the fifth book will be about Elizabeth of York, the sister of the Princes in the Tower and daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster for review

The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

When I read The Champion a couple of months ago and asked for recommendations of other Elizabeth Chadwick books, The Greatest Knight was mentioned, so I decided to make it the next Chadwick book I read. The Greatest Knight is historical fiction based on the life of William Marshal, one of the most important knights of the medieval period. Marshal has been largely forgotten today (I didn’t know anything about him at all before reading this book), but his story is one that deserves to be told.

William Marshal lived during the 12th and early 13th centuries and was described by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as “the greatest knight that ever lived”. Starting out as an inexperienced young knight, William comes to the attention of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and soon rises to a position of power and influence. As a friend of Eleanor’s, advisor to her husband Henry II and tutor to their son, Henry the Young King, William has an important part to play in the Plantagenet court. Keeping everybody happy in this time of shifting loyalties isn’t easy and he often finds himself in a very precarious position with some difficult decisions to make.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s version of William is a very engaging and likeable character. He’s brave, intelligent, loyal and chivalrous and despite living through dangerous and turbulent times, he manages to keep his honour and integrity intact. There were times when he seemed almost too perfect, though fortunately not quite to the extent where he became unrealistic. Assuming that the fictional Marshal is not too different to the real one, then he really did deserve the title of ‘the greatest knight’.

While The Champion took fictional characters and set them against a medieval backdrop, this book deals mainly with real historical figures and real historical events. Perhaps because of this, there’s less romance in this book and more history. William does have a mistress and then eventually a wife, but these relationships form just part of his story and many other aspects of his life and career are given equal attention. And a large amount of the book is devoted to the treachery, betrayal and political intrigues of the Plantagenets: Eleanor, her husband King Henry II, and their children – Henry, the Young King; Richard I (The Lionheart); Geoffrey and King John.

Chadwick’s note at the back of the book explains where she has tried to stick to the known facts and where she has had to use her own judgment and imagination to fill in the gaps. As always when I discuss historical fiction novels, I want to point out that I am not a serious historian and not an expert on this (or any other) period of history – therefore I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy. I read these books purely for enjoyment and in the hope of learning something new and The Greatest Knight fulfilled both of those criteria: it was very enjoyable and it was great to learn about a historical figure I previously knew nothing about and who lived through some of the most fascinating times in English history.

This book ends in the middle of Marshal’s life because, as the author explains, there was just far too much to fit into one novel, even after being selective and not attempting to cover every single event that happened to him. I’m looking forward to seeing how his story continues in the sequel, The Scarlet Lion.

Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

This is the second book in Philippa Gregory’s new series set during the Wars of the Roses, a tumultuous period of English history in which the rival houses of York and Lancaster struggled for power. In The White Queen we met Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV of York, sister-in-law of Richard III and mother of the two young princes who mysteriously disappeared in the Tower of London in 1483. The Red Queen is the story of another woman who also played an important part in the Wars of the Roses: Margaret Beaufort of Lancaster, the mother of King Henry VII.

Although this is the second book in the series, I wouldn’t really describe it as a sequel – that is, The Red Queen doesn’t just pick up where The White Queen left off. The two books overlap somewhat and cover some of the same events, but from opposing sides of the conflict. You don’t really need to have read the first book to understand this one, although it would probably make sense to read them in the correct order. I really like the concept of two books each telling the story from a different perspective; throughout much of The White Queen, Margaret Beaufort and the Tudors were shadowy characters in the background, plotting and scheming from afar, so it was good to have them take centre stage in The Red Queen.

One of the themes running throughout the book is Margaret’s belief that God has chosen her to be another Joan of Arc, who will lead the House of Lancaster to victory, and that God’s will is for her son Henry Tudor to be crowned King. Margaret was not very likeable – in fact she came across as a very cold, ambitious and unpleasant person – but as far as I can tell, this is probably true of the historical Margaret. I was surprised that I could still enjoy this book despite the narrator being so unsympathetic; sometimes obnoxious characters can be fun to read about, and I found Margaret’s uncharitable thoughts about the House of York and the Woodville family quite funny at times.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book because I have never studied the period in any depth – however, my lack of knowledge meant that I could just concentrate on enjoying the story! The Wars of the Roses were a complex and long-running series of conflicts, during which many of the key players changed their allegiances several times (and just to confuse things further, many of them also had the same names – lots of Henrys and Edwards, for example) but Philippa Gregory has made it easy to understand and follow what’s going on. I do think a more detailed family tree would have been helpful though – the one provided in the book was incomplete and I didn’t find it very useful.

The book is written in the same format as The White Queen, with most of the story being told in the first person present tense, occasionally switching to the third person to relate important events at which Margaret was not present, such as the Battle of Bosworth Field. I really like the way Philippa Gregory writes battle scenes using language that I can understand, as I often find reading about battles very confusing! The whole book is written in quite simplistic prose and can be repetitive at times, but it always held my attention and drew me into the story.

If you are new to the Wars of the Roses – a fascinating period of history – then I would recommend either The Red Queen or The White Queen as an excellent starting point. I also think that if you’ve tried Philippa Gregory in the past and didn’t find her books to your taste, it could be worth giving her another chance as these newest books are quite different from the Tudor ones that I’ve read.


I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster UK for their Red Queen Blog Tour

Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is best known for her Tudor court novels, but with The White Queen she moves further back in time to the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.

Elizabeth Woodville is twenty seven when she meets and falls in love with King Edward IV. Following a private wedding, Elizabeth becomes Queen of England and finds herself caught up in the ongoing battles between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Amidst all the politics, intrigue and betrayal, Elizabeth’s concern is for the future of her children – in particular her two royal sons who will become the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’, a mystery which remains unsolved to this day.

The book is written in the first person present tense which I found slightly irritating, though not enough to stop me from enjoying the book. The use of present tense does help the reader to feel as if they are experiencing events along with Elizabeth, so it works in that sense, but my personal preference is definitely for past tense. There are a few passages where the viewpoint temporarily changes to the third person in order to describe battles which Elizabeth doesn’t witness but which are an important part of the storyline. I often find battle scenes boring, but these are well written and go into just the right amount of detail.

I found the story itself quite suspenseful and exciting – it probably helped that although I read a lot of historical fiction novels, I haven’t read many about the War of the Roses, so only had a vague idea of what was going to happen. Of course, this meant that I wasn’t sure exactly which parts of the book were based on fact and which parts were the invention of the author. In her note at the end of the book, Gregory mentions that there’s not much information available about the period, therefore there are some areas where she felt free to use her imagination.

If you’re not very familiar with the historical background, you’ll need to concentrate to be able to keep track of all the battles, changes of allegiances and numerous claimants to the throne. The family tree provided at the front of the book is not very helpful – it’s incomplete and really needed to show at least one more generation, as it ends before some of the important characters in the story were even born.

I found it difficult to warm to the character of Elizabeth but could feel sympathy for her, especially towards the end of the book. Richard III was also portrayed quite sympathetically – nothing like the evil hunchback in Shakespeare’s play! I would have liked to have seen his relationship with Elizabeth more thoroughly explored in the book – there was no real explanation for why she distrusts him so much, other than that she’s had dreams and premonitions that something bad will happen to her sons in the Tower. On the subject of the Princes in the Tower, the book explores an interesting theory, which may or may not be true – it would be nice to think that it was.

Interspersed with the main story is the tale of Melusina, the water goddess, from whom Elizabeth and the female members of her family are said to have descended and from whom they claim to have inherited magical powers.
Magic and mythology are recurring themes throughout the book. Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta’s witchcraft skills are used as an explanation for several key historical events – for example, they whistle up storms to defeat their enemies at sea. This aspect of the story became quite repetitive and just didn’t appeal to me much. Sometimes it felt as if there were references to Melusina, water, rivers, the sea etc on almost every page!

The book ends abruptly, but that’s not surprising since The White Queen is the first in a trilogy called The Cousins’ War and will be followed by The Red Queen and The White Princess which will focus on Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York respectively.

I would recommend The White Queen if, like me, you don’t have much knowledge of the Wars of the Roses and are looking for an enjoyable and relatively easy to understand introduction to the period. For those of you with a lot of background knowledge, I think there should still be enough new ideas to keep you interested.


Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 417/Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Year: 2009/Source: My own copy bought new