Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book 196: The Lady of the Rivers



"Through the night we hear the clatter of hooves down the village street, and occasional shouts. The girl, the woman, and I cower like frightened children together: this is what it is like to live in a country at war. There is nothing of the grace of the joust or even the inspiration of great principles—it is about being a poor woman hearing a detachment of horse thunder down your street and praying they do not stop to hammer on your frail door."

Dates read: December 15-19, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When people talk about the history of marriage (a subject I find really interesting), they tend to talk about how the idea of marrying for love is relatively recent. Which is mostly true! Most marriages until just the last couple of generations were at least partially arranged by family. This has some advantages (like fostering stronger social connections within communities), as well as some obvious disadvantages (like getting stuck with someone you might not necessarily even like, much less love, for the rest of your life). But the idea that love matches never happened isn't exactly true, either.

There were two love matches, in fact, that were influential in the English Wars of the Roses. In one, Queen Catherine, widow of King Henry V, married a Welsh commoner and her grandson from that union became King Henry VII. In the other, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who had been married to King Henry V's brother briefly before his death, secretly married one of the knights of her deceased husband's household, Richard Woodville. This productive marriage (they had 14 children, including future Queen Consort Elizabeth) is explored in Philippa Gregory's third novel in her Cousin's War series, The Lady of the Rivers. As is relatively common with Gregory's historical fiction, this book isn't the first in the series, but does take place first in the timeline, so while it explores much of Jacquetta's life, it ends where the first book written (The White Queen) begins.

Gregory begins Jacquetta's story with a meeting between our heroine and Joan of Arc as pre-teens, while Joan is being held by Jacquetta's uncle. This is used to establish the plot device of Jacquetta's family's claim to be descended from water goddess Melusina, and set up Jacquetta's interest in fortune-telling, primarily through tarot cards. When Jacquetta grows up, she's married off to much-older John, the Duke of Bedford and brother to the King of England. Gregory paints this marriage as never consummated...the Duke is mostly interested in using Jacquetta to further his interest in alchemy and believes she must remain virginal to do so. They never develop much of a relationship, but she does develop a big old crush on her husband's chamberlain, a handsome young knight called Richard Woodville. When John dies, she and Richard wed...in secret, at first, because technically Jacquetta needs the Crown's permission to remarry and knows they'll never allow the match.

From there, Jacquetta and John join the English Court, under the rule of Henry VI and his high-spirited French bride, Margaret of Anjou. Jacquetta becomes Margaret's maid of honor and closest friend, and is by her side through most of the events of the early period of the Wars of the Roses...at least, when she's not having children, because she's basically constantly pregnant. She tries to protect the Lancastrian Royal Couple from themselves (pious, timid Henry lets powerful-minded nobles run him roughshod and drain the royal treasury, and his lack of marital attentions to his lively wife leads to an affair), only to mostly be unsuccessful. When her husband is captured in battle with the Yorks and has to swear to set down arms against them to be freed, Jacquetta is relieved to leave Court behind and settle down to life as country gentry...until, of course, her oldest daughter Elizabeth comes to the door hand-in-hand with Yorkist King Edward.

Since this book provides much of the backstory for The White Queen, I was afraid it would be just as immersed in the kind of silly mysticalism that's all over the previous book and made it so hard for me to enjoy it. Happily, though, there's much less of that in here, and it's integrated into the plot in a way that feels organic. My biggest issue with The Lady of the Rivers is that Jacquetta herself is a fairly passive character who mostly reacts to the events around her. Margaret of Anjou is the one who drives them, and I kind of wish she'd been the protagonist instead, because she seemed BONKERS in a delightfully dramatic kind of way.

Look, I like Philippa Gregory's books. I don't think they're super high quality, but they're enjoyable to read and as much as I like to be pretentious about my taste in novels, sometimes something that's fun and easy doesn't have to be more than that. But if you've read her work before, you know what you're getting into: high drama and questionable historical sourcing. Sometimes they're a little better, sometimes they're a little worse. This falls on the mid-point for me...it's fine. It's not amazing, it's not terrible. I liked reading it and I'd read it again if I do a read-through of the whole Plantagenet-Tudor cycle like I'm planning on one day. I'd recommend it if you like Gregory's work, but if historical fiction is not your thing, it's not unmissable by any means.

One year ago, I was reading: Paint It Black (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking

Three years ago, I was reading: Inamorata

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