Friday, September 28, 2012

The Kingmaker's Daughter by Philippa Gregory

The fourth and final book in Gregory's Cousins' War series focuses on Isabel and Anne Neville, daughters of Richard Neville, one of the major powers behind the English throne during the Wars of the Roses. Our main character is Anne Neville, who spends the early parts of the book in awe of her father, who deposed "the sleeping king and the bad queen" -- the Lancastrian King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou -- in favor of York's Edward IV. She's also in awe of Edward's glamorous wife, Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who many felt was an unsuitable consort for Edward. Gregory uses her standard "naive narrator" voice in the early sections of the book, characterizing Anne as a young woman fully under the power of her father. If you've read Gregory before, you know this voice -- she employs it regularly, most memorably for Katherine Howard in The Boleyn Inheritance.

Like any powerful woman of the 15th century, Elizabeth Woodville was not to be trusted. Accusations of witchcraft follow her everywhere, and are blamed for her successes and her failures. Richard Neville begins as a staunch Yorkist, but when the king begins to follow the advice of the Woodville family rather than his, he changes sides, becomes a Lancastrian, and starts working to remove Edward from the throne. Anne is initially confused by this turn of events. She's spent her entire life hating and fearing the Lancasters, especially their queen, Margaret of Anjou. Now, she's not only a supporter of their claim to the throne, she's forced to marry the Edward, the Lancaster heir and presumptive king. Theirs is a loveless political marriage, and Neville's intent is to get close to whomever is to become king via his daughters. Further muddying the family's loyalties is Isabel's marriage to Edward IV's brother George, second in line to the throne at the time of their marriage. One sister is married to a York, the other to a Lancaster, which should put Richard Neville in a position of power. Neville's scheming backfires (his failure is blamed on Elizabeth Woodville's witchcraft, of course), he is executed, his son-in-law Edward dies, and his daughters are left to their own resources, forced to distance themselves from the father whose shadow looms large over their lives.

After some time as a widow, Anne marries Richard, the youngest of the York brothers. There's some foreshadowing of the marriage in earlier parts of the book -- they shared a flirtation as youths. This seems to tie Anne in strongly with the York cause; between her new marriage and her sister's marriage to Richard's brother George, their loyalties should be secure. But one of the most enduring lessons these sisters learned from their father was to strive for more, at any cost -- and they do, and the cost is devastatingly high. We watch Anne turn from an innocent whose life is fully controlled by her politically-connected father to a young woman whose life is poisoned by paranoia and jealousy. By the time Richard ascends to the throne, it's hard to recognize the young woman whose unquestioning, unwavering belief in her father's cause -- whatever it was at the time -- was the key characteristic of her personality. 

This is the Gregory treatment of the story, so women are the prime movers. It's their gossip that stirs up tales of Edward IV's illegitimacy and turns Elizabeth Woodville from beautiful queen to villainous witch; it's their advice that puts the princes in the tower and Richard on the throne. This is all speculation, but a seasoned author like Gregory knows that it makes a good story and uses it to her full advantage. Gregory teases with speculation; she offers several options but leaves it to her readers to make their judgment about what really happened. She absolves both Richard and Anne of responsibility, and insinuates that the princes are alive and well and living in exile somewhere. It's a very noncommittal approach to one of the great mysteries of English history, and a bit of a surprise given the drama inherent in this story.

There are facts, and there are speculations. We know that Richard was a third son, and therefore unlikely to inherit the throne. We know that the late King Edward's sons -- his heirs -- were locked in the Tower of London, never to be seen or heard from again. We know Richard became king, and we know he was defeated in battle by Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII after Richard's defeat and founded one England's most storied royal dynasties. But history hasn't been kind to Richard. He was a usurper, and it is widely believed that he murdered two innocent boys in the process. But Gregory spends most of the novel setting Richard and Anne up as heroes. Richard especially remains loyal and steadfast to his family's cause, succumbing to the scheming that puts him on the throne only after his mother gets in on the action. It's kind of a "The Princes in the Tower, and How They Got There" story. Richard is presented as a nice guy who loves his brothers despite their faults. His strings get pulled by some very conniving people, among them, his own mother, and he ends up benefiting, even though he never meant to do anything wrong.

Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to the wheel of fortune -- what goes up must come down. It's a fine metaphor for the lives of all of the women embroiled in this bitter battle.These women battle their way to the top in the ways that they can -- through marriage, childbirth, loyalty, and family ties -- and once they get there, they know there's nowhere to go but right back down. At a particularly poignant scene at the end of the novel, Anne says it herself: "You can go very high and you can sink very low, but you can rarely turn the wheel at your own bidding." Despite all that Gregory's Cousins' War heroines had to offer -- their intelligence, their shrewdness, their political savvy -- they were never able to really turn that wheel on their own.

Anne led a short but eventful life, and Gregory does her justice. Since this is the last in the Cousins' War series, I look forward to finding out which era she will write about next.

1 comment:

  1. I have gone off Philippa Gregory in a big way, but you almost could convince me to give her another go. Almost!