The UK edition of Philippa Gregory’s latest release has the tagline, The girl who would be queen. Not The girl whose father would that she were queen. Gregory veers away from the traditional depiction of Anne Neville as meek and mild, a pawn in the political games of her father, Warwick the Kingmaker. Anne begins her narration as a naive eight-year-old growing up in the shadow of her beautiful older sister Isabel. But like most medieval noble daughters, who were often married in their early teens or even before, she has to grow up fast. Warwick wants one of his daughters to be Queen of England – and he doesn’t care which one. Fortune’s Wheel spins wildly throughout this book, and Anne and Isabel are rarely at the top of it at the same time. Gregory is in her element with the depiction of sisterly rivalry against a background of court intrigue – it’s the same recipe that made The Other Boleyn Girl a worldwide bestseller. She is an expert in portraying the claustrophobia of court life: the constant fear and insecurity which were inseparable from rank and power in the turbulent fifteenth century.
The Kingmaker’s Daughter covers twenty years in the Wars of the Roses from Anne’s point of view (first-person, present tense). Although it is the fourth in the Cousins’ War series, it can be read as a standalone novel, as Gregory does not assume any knowledge of the period on the part of her readers. As Anne grows to adulthood, she learns more about the world she lives in, and the reader can learn with her. This would make a good introduction to the Wars of the Roses or to historical fiction. Although not aimed specifically at the YA market, with Anne a teenager for much of the book, I felt it was a natural fit for a YA audience.
I can’t help but wonder if the old king, the sleeping king, is awake tonight, somewhere in the wild lands of the North of England. It is rather horrible to think of him, fast asleep but knowing in his very dreams that they are dancing and that a new king and queen have crowned themselves and put themselves in his place, and tomorrow a new queen will wear his wife’s crown. Father says I have nothing to fear, the bad queen has run away to France and will get no help from her French friends. Father is meeting with the King of France himself to make sure that he becomes our friend and the bad queen will get no help from him. She is our enemy, she is the enemy of the peace of England. Father will make sure that there is no home for her in France, as there is no throne for her in England. Meanwhile, the sleeping king without his wife, without his son, will be wrapped up warm in some little castle, somewhere near Scotland, dozing his life away like a bee in a curtain all winter. My father says that he will sleep and she will burn with rage until they both grow old and die, and there is nothing for me to fear at all.
I love the bee in a curtain – one of the trademarks of Gregory’s writing is her apposite use of period-appropriate similes and metaphors. Margaret of Anjou travelling under guard being compared to a herded swan was another of my favourites from this book.
One of the more dramatic events of Anne’s life, when she finds herself acting as midwife to her sister Isabel at sea in a storm (which Elizabeth Woodville was accused of having “whistled up” through witchcraft), is an opportunity for Philippa Gregory to do what historical novelists do best – bring to life an event which is treated much more succinctly by historians. I had already listened to Philippa’s reading of part of this scene, so I was looking forward to it, and it didn’t disappoint.
‘She is taking her breath and then she will whistle,’ Izzy says. She turns away from me and lies on her back, her big belly rounded and full. Her hands come out and grip either side of the beautifully carved wooden bed, while she stretches her feet down to the bottom of the bedframe, as if she were bracing herself for danger. ‘In a moment now, she will whistle.’
I try to say cheerfully, ‘No, no, Izzy…’ when there is a scream of wind that takes my breath away. Howling like a whistle, like a banshee, the wind pours out of the darkened sky, the boat heels over and the sea beneath us suddenly bows up and throws us up towards the clouds that split with sickly yellow lightning.
‘Close the door! Shut her out!’ Izzy screams as the boat rolls and the double doors to the cabin fly open. I reach for them and then stand amazed. Before the cabin is the prow of the ship and beyond that should be the waves of the sea. But I can see nothing before me but the prow, rising up and up and up as if the ship is standing on its stern and the prow is vertical in the sky above me. Then I see why. Beyond the prow is a mighty wave, towering as high as a castle wall, and our little ship is trying to climb its side. In a moment the crest of the wave, icy white against the black sky, is going to turn and crash down on us, as a storm of hail pours down with a rattle that makes the deck white as a snowfield in a second, and stings my face and bare arms, and crunches beneath my bare feet like broken glass.
NB: it gets worse. Much worse. This particular scene is not recommended reading for anyone who will be giving birth in the near future!
While I enjoyed the characterisation of Anne herself and also of Richard III – he’s very far from Shakespeare’s villain but no milquetoast either – I felt other aspects of the book were underwritten. Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV and heroine of The White Queen, is a malign presence throughout this book, but although she functions effectively as an absent influence, I would have liked to read at least one meaty confrontation between her and Anne. Not necessarily an Alexis Colby/Krystle Carrington-style catfight – given the extent of Queen Elizabeth’s power Anne would hardly be likely to shove her into a lilypond however much she might want to. But I would have liked to read a long, in-depth conversation between them where both women would put at least some of their cards on the table – or pretend to. Equally, at one point in the book Anne discovers that her husband has been rather less than honest with her about certain legal aspects of their marriage. The information comes as a shock for her and I was disappointed that she never brings it up with him.
Notwithstanding, The Kingmaker’s Daughter is a fast, entertaining read which should please – and add to – Philippa Gregory’s many fans.
FTC required disclosure: I bought my own copy of The Kingmaker’s Daughter.