Cecily: An epic feminist retelling of the War of the Roses

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Cecily: An epic feminist retelling of the War of the Roses

Cecily: An epic feminist retelling of the War of the Roses

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The prose may not be original or rare within modern fiction as a whole (although I wouldn’t know as I only read post-1940 fiction when it’s historical fiction) , but I certainly think it is in TWOTR /medieval fiction. It has saved her, these past weeks, to be at the centre of his stratagems, poring over maps, drawing up plans, deciding the appointments of officers; weighing up men’s competence and ambition, where they will serve best and how far they can be trusted.

Altogether, this is a satisfying novel, told with fidelity to history, presenting the reader with a believable and insightful portrait of a remarkable woman. You can, then, imagine that I found it a bit disarming yet refreshing to behold the modern, middle-class, middle aged businesswoman inserted into a 15th century setting.From the opening chapter, in which 16-year-old Cecily - already married for some years to Richard - forces herself to watch the burning of Joan of Arc to prove her husband is loyal to the king in whose name the sentence is carried out, through myriad births and (sadly) far too many infant deaths, and the navigation of the shifting sands of always-changing political alliances, to the final tumultuous scenes, we watch the growth and maturation of a strong and very complex woman through often exquisite, jewel-like prose. The Yorkist propaganda that Edward of Lancaster was a bastard is made fact but at least rather than being “evil slutty Margaret has an evil affair”, it’s depicted as something she had to do to survive so Garthwaite gets a lot of points for not using it as another way to denigrate Margaret. Annie Garthwaite's Cecily Neville--the ambitious, brilliant, fierce, yet deeply vulnerable wife of a duke and mother of a king--is one of the most unforgettable characters I've encountered in literature in a long time. The characters really really felt real and there was not a moment where we lost sight of that even though at certain points I did feel like the book was being heavy-handed about Cecily’s excellent political qualities to the point of unrealism (she coming up with most of the plans, strategies and schemes). On the other hand their lives were recognisably different, for example accepting infant mortality and the sheer Hobbesian brutishness of life.

A lot of novels I’ve read about this particular time period – the end of the Hundred Years War, the beginning of the Wars of the Roses – tend to focus mainly on the origins of the Wars of the Roses and deal with the Hundred Years War as something to be gotten through to get to the “good stuff”, even though the failures in France were what undermined Henry VI’s reign and his favourites. History has forgotten many women - they were illiterate until recent history - but Cecily is an example of a a clever, intelligent and ambitious woman well ahead of her time.It’s just so, so, so good and this era is so incredibly starved of good historical fiction that even that clanger didn’t ruin it totally for me. And what a novel - it's beautifully written, full of carefully crafted and realistic-feeling characters, chock full of tension and intrigue, and ever-atmospheric as it chronicles the merciless ebb and flow of fortune of its titular heroine.

Garthwaite clearly knows her stuff, and is happy to leap across the sea to France, show you what’s happening there, leap back, drag you around castles in England, leap over to Burgundy. They are nothing but courteous towards her when she almost faints during the My Lady of Walsingham pilgrimage in 1453/4, and they outwardly seem to be genuine while Cecily is show to have only joined them for ulterior motives. She will do it for a dukedom and for ever closer ties to the old royal house, for the network of affinity that will keep York strong. Her depictions of the heads of state are great, put vivid physical descriptions and personalities to legendary names.Cecily replies that she must hold London for Edward, but when the boat with her boys disappears into the night, “she sits down on the cold steps, wraps empty about her knees and scalds her face with tears. Richard and Cecily do all that they can to hold English lands in France, brokering deals with the Dukes of Burgundy and Orleans, committing their own funds to pay the soldiers and compensate the townsfolk. It isn't anti-men, in fact her relationship and alliance with her husband is one of the strongest themes in the book.

This makes it more unforgettable to me than its topic, which on the face of it isn’t so unique (there have been many other books written about Cecily). After the deaths of Richard, Edmund (the son she did not choose), and Salisbury at Wakefield, Cecily knows London must close its gates to Queen Marguerite’s oncoming army until Edward can arrive. It was fascinating to read about two extremely different people trying to strive and survive together. Recently, I've read some very good books on the subject, but none of them was from the view point of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV king of England. I really like that the focus is on strong women, there are plenty of them in the Middle Ages but history (written for much of the time by men 😁) has chosen to ignore them until recent years.I’ve seen it avoid prose pitfalls we find in certain histfic classics: slamming the brakes in the plot at certain points to give us meaningless and long-winded vignettes or expositions of certain figures, their feelings (or motivation - yuck!

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