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Joanna Hickson is very good at creating romance from the bare bones of history. She did it to good effect in her duology featuring Catherine de Valois, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. She attempts this again in Red Rose, White Rose, a novel based on the life of Cicely Neville, Duchess if York and mother of both Edward IV and Richard III.

The novel deals well with the political issues of the times, the growing antipathy between reigning Lancaster and ambitious York, and the various historical nobles whose actions led to the continuation of the Wars of the Roses that resulted in the reign of the two Yorkist kings and the ultimate triumph of the Tudor line.

It also shows, through the viewpoint of Cicely and the relationships of her sisters, friends and daughters, many of the harsh realities of the lives of the noble women of the times. Often the wives and daughters of the great lords were little more than pawns, their marriages serving as ways of solidifying political alliances, their bodies useful only as the producers of heirs.

However, it is in the realm of personal relationships, that I feel Hickson goes somewhat astray. Hickson invents a story of an abduction and seduction by an estranged kinsman when Cicely was young and not yet married that turned into love unrequited for many years after that. I feel that the relationship between Cicely and her husband Richard of York was complex enough without inventing secret lifelong adulterous desires.

The novel has as one of the two viewpoint characters (Cicely herself being the other) a supposed bastard half-brother, Cuthbert of Middleham. I liked the invented character, and Hickson effectively uses him to allow us to see further than even a politically active woman like Cicely Neville could reasonably take us - into the councils of men, and into battle. But the naming of this character was to my mind inappropriate and potentially confusing. It's certainly true that Cicely's father, having had 20 legitimate children, could easily have had more than a few illegitimate children, and might have brought one into his house to be raised alongside his half-siblings - but Cicely did have an older, legitimate brother named Cuthbert (who died young) so why not call the invented brother something else?

Red Rose, White Rose carries Cicely's story through to the moment when, her husband dead in battle, her eldest son Edward is offered the crown - though not before he has managed to defeat the Lancastrian forces and capture Henry VI. There is a postscript which notes that Cicely outlived all but two of her children, both daughters.

Aside from the quibbles I have with certain invented elements (which Hickson actually addresses in her Afterward), I found the novel both enjoyable and an interesting look at the events surrounding the York rebellion and Edward IV's rise to the throne.

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Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

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I read quite a few historical novels last year, most of them set during the Wars of the Roses or the Tudor dynasty. A few were by authors I've read before, but most were by writers new to me, and thanks to judicious reading of reviews prior to acquisition, they were all good reads - and a few of them were excellent.

One of the most delightful discoveries in terms of new-found authors in the genre was Margaret Campbell Barnes. Born in 1891, most of her historical novels were published in the 40s ans 50s. After her death in 1962, most of her books went out of print, but she has been "rediscovered" and a number of her books have been recently republished. Barnes' novels are well-researched, detailed, and have a realatively "modern" feel to them, which should make her as popular today as she was 60 years ago. I've certainly found the books I've read to be just as entertaining as anything by Philippa Gregory, or any of Alison Weir's historical novels. So far, I have been able to obtain and read:

Margaret Barnes Campbell, The Passionate Brood. Originally published as Like Us, They Lived, this is a novel of the fractious Angevin Plantagenets - Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children - focusing primarily on Richard (later called Lionheart), his younger siblings Joan and John, and his wife Berengaria. Barnes also brings into her tale a decidedly ahistorical relationship between Richard and the legendary Robin Hood.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, The Tudor Rose. The story of Elizabeth of York, daughter and niece of the last Yorkist kinss Edward IV and Richard III, wife of the first Tudor king Henry VII.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, King's Fool. A portrait of Henry VIII through the eyes of his fool, Will Somers.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, Brief Gaudy Hour. The story of Anne Boleyn's marriage to Henry VIII.



Other historical novels read and enjoyed during 2013 included:

Vanora Bennett, The People's Queen. A fascinating take on Alice Perrers, businesswoman, mistress of Edward III, and friend (if not more) to poet and merchant Geoffrey Chaucer, who is thought to have used her as the inspiration for the Wife of Bath.

Vanora Bennett, Blood Royal (published in the US as The Queen's Lover). Catherine of Valois. Daughter of the mad king Charles VI of France, wife of Henry V, mother to the infant king Henry VI who would be the last Lancastrian king, lover and probably wife to Owen Tudor (a descendant of Welsh princes), ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. 

Joanna Hickson, The Agincourt Bride. Another perspective on Catherine of Valois, this first volume of a duology covers Catherine's early life, marriage to Henry V, and early widowhood. The second volune, which I am eagerly awaiting, will cover her relationship with Owen Tudor.

Philippa Gregory, The White Queen. A sympathetic view of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Yorkist king Edward IV and mother of the princes in the tower and Elizabeth of York.

Anne O'Brien, The Virgin Widow. An engaging portrait of Anne Neville, daughter of Warrick the Kingmaker, wife to the last Lancastrian heir (Edward of Lancaster) and the last Yorkist king, Richard III.

Alison Weir, A Dangerous Inheritance. Weir does something quite interesting in this novel, which tells the story of two women, both close to the throne but on the losing side of dynastic struggles - Katherine Plantagenet, illigitimate daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, focus of a plot to set aside the succession of Mary Tudor. Weir links them togethet, despite the 100 years that separate them, through the device of secret papers exploring the fate of the Princes in the tower - young royals who lost, like the two Katherines, status and liberty, but unlike them, also lost their lives. 

Susan Higginbotham, Queen of Last Hopes. The story of Margaret d'Anjou, wife of the last Lancastrian king, Edward VI, and her long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to first regain her husband's throne, and later to win the throne for her son, after the victory of the house of York.

Karen Harper, The Queen's Governess. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I through the eyes of her governes and later personal confidante, Kat Astley.

Margaret George, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. Novel of the tempestuous life of Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots.

Stephanie Dray, Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile. First two novels of a trilogy based on the life of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Anthony.

Michelle Moran, Cleopatra's Daughter. Another portrait of Cleopatra Selene.


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Life's been too much of a bitch for me to keep on writing about books much, but I still read, and I may as well at least post lists of what I read this past year. Here's the first list.


Non-fiction


Much of the of the non-fiction I read was a bit of a hodge-podge. Cultural/political studies, feminism, history, biography. All in its way interesting and nothing I regret reading.

Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Adam Kotsko, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television
Arundahti Roy, Talking to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Tim Wise, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority

Lillian Faderman, Naked in the Promised Land

Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses
Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: The Family Story

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In the realm of historical fiction, I re-read Sharon Kay Penman's excellent trilogy focused on Richard III and the end of the Wars of the Roses. As fond as I am of the often larger-than-life Tudors, I also have a soft spot for the much-maligned last Yorkist king.

Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendor
Sharon Kay Penman, Falls the Shadow
Sharon Kay Penman, The Reckoning

I also read the very excellent first novel in a series about the almost legendary Genghis Khan, another of those historical figures that I find fascinating.

Conn Iggulden, Wolf of the Plains

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