Book Review: The Kingmaker’s Daughter
by Philippa Gregory
A long time ago, by the peat fire back in Connemara, my saintly mother would often say to me, “Beware the Ricardians!” She warned that there was a cabal out there, vocal and scrappy, dedicated to restoring the name and good repute of Shakespeare’s legendary villain Richard Crookback, of consulting various historical incunabula in order to prove that this viper, who hardly waited until his brother the king’s body was cold before he ordered the execution of his own nephews so he could take the throne of England himself, was actually a saint maligned by custom. “Beware the Ricardians, my son!” she warned, on darky and rainy nights.
Actually, it was right here in the United States, not in Ireland, and it wasn’t so much warnings about historical revisionism as it was imprecations squawked at the profligacy of contestants on “The Price is Right” (“$500 for that piece of junk? I wouldn’t give you one dollar for it!”) – but Ricardians are a danger just the same, and best-selling historical novelist Philippa Gregory has now firmly joined their nerdy ranks. Her latest book, the absorbing and oddly wise The Kingmaker’s Daughter, is nominally about Anne Neville and her sister Isabel, the daughters of the Earl of Warwick, the “kingmaker” whose might and allegiance helped to secure the throne for the “heart-stoppingly handsome and glamorous new king” Edward IV. Certainly that familial connection is always foremost on Anne’s mind when she thinks about Edward’s stubborn and surprising decision to wed Elizabeth Woodville (of the hated Rivers clan) in private:
He did very wrong to act without my father’s advice; everyone knows that. It is the first time he had done so in the long triumphant campaign that took the House of York from shame, when they had to beg forgiveness of the sleeping king and the bad queen, to victory and the throne of England. My father has been at Edward’s side, advising and guiding him, dictating his every move. My father has always judged what is best for him. The king, even though he is king now, is a young man who owes my father everything. He would not have his throne if it were not for my father taking up his cause, teaching him how to lead an army, fighting his battles for him. My father risked his own life, first for Edward’s father, and then for Edward himself, and then, just when the sleeping king and the bad queen had run away, and Edward was crowned king, and everything should have been wonderful forever, he went off and secretly married Her.
(In case you weren’t counting, that was six ‘my father’s in as many lines)
But the real star of this show is Edward’s slimy younger brother Richard, and the scenes that quickly ensue between Anne and her new husband are taken straight from the standard Ricardian playbook:
I run to him, without thinking what I am doing. I run to the first friendly face that I have seen since Christmas, and in a moment I am in his arms and he is holding me tightly and kissing my face, my closed eyes, my smiling mouth, kissing me until I am breathless and have to pull away from him. “Richard! Oh, Richard!”
There’s more going on in these pages, of course – Gregory, author of the almost hypnotically readable The Other Boleyn Girl, is one of our best working historical novelists, not some pawn to revisionist monomania. The Kingmaker’s Daughter is a fantastic read, told from the point of view of a young woman who’s little more than a ghost in the history of the Wars of the Roses. As she’s done now with a solid dozen such factual phantoms, Gregory manages to put some very convincing flesh on Anne Neville’s bones – in fact, as usual in a Gregory novel, all the women are fascinatingly realized. When Isabel whispers to Anne about the perfidy of Eilzabeth Woodville, Anne’s own sense of aggrieved fairness forces her to defend her worst enemy:
“Iz,” I say gently. “We fear her because we know what our fathers did to hers, and we know how wrong it was. His sin is on our conscience and we fear his victims. We fear her because she knows that we both hoped to steal her throne – one after the other – and we both were married to men who raised their standards against hers. She knows that both George and the prince, my first husband, would have killed Edward and put her in the Tower. But when we were defeated she received us. She didn’t have us locked up. She didn’t have us accused of treason and imprisoned. She has never show anything but courtesy to us.”
And, in a typically deft Gregory move, Isabel’s rejoinder is tellingly emotional. “Has she ever said she still feels rage?” She asks her sister. “Has she ever said she forgives you? Has she ever said anything as a sister-in-law, as one woman to another, anything at all?”
Gregory applies this same kind of psychological insight to Richard, alas, in dramatizing the plight he faced – his brother dead, his brother’s heir still a boy, the innumerable Rivers clan angling for a takeover of the kingdom. Our author knows her bad-boy’s reputation has been blackened by those wicked, pretty girls from her high school years, the ones who could never understand him (“Richard! Oh, Richard!”), and when Anne marvels at her creepy husband’s resolution, she does so with full authorial consent:
Richard sends the children to the chapel to pray for the soul of their uncle the king. He is fast and decisive, burning up with the vision of what must be done. This is the moment of destiny, and he is a Plantagenet – they are always at their best in a crisis or on the brink of an opportunity. A child of war, a soldier, commander, warden of the West Marches, he has worked his way up through the ranks of his brother’s men to be ready for the moment now – the moment that his brother is no more, and Richard must protect his brother’s legacy.
“You have to wade through the blood of innocent men,” she tells him as the book races to its climax. He looks at her with steely determination and replies, “To get him on the throne … To make him a good king and not their cat’s-paw; yes, yes I do.”
These kinds of General Hospital moments will be hard sledding for those of us who recognize a regicide from a mile off, but they’re cream and sugar to recidivist Ricardians, who must believe their hero had the best of intentions from start to finish rather than entertain the thought that an envious younger brother might come to want everything his glorious older brother had. The history of such emotions is as plain and open as a field of farmland, but Ricardians prefer the brambles of indefensible defense. These are the people – some of them otherwise quite intelligent – who read the Book of Genesis and say “Cain was Framed!”
And now Gregory joins ringleader Josephine Tey in portraying her hero as a lone noble figure beset on all sides, although at least Gregory has the narrative flair to make him sound in the end like another Richard, of Watergate infamy:
“There was no need for me to kill them,” he says. To my ears, his voice is an exculpatory whine. “I had them safe. I had them declared bastards. The country supported my coronation, my progress was a success, we were accepted everywhere, acclaimed. I was going to send them to Sheriff Hutton and keep them there, safe. That’s why I wanted it rebuilt. In a few years’ time, when they were young men, I was going to release them and honour them as my nephews, command them to come to court and serve us. Keep them under my eye, treat them as royal kinsmen …” He breaks off. “I was going to be a good uncle to them, as I am to George’s boy and his girl. I was going to care for them.”
History strongly suggests that Richard’s version of caring for his nephews was to order them smothered to death in the Tower so that he could finally rule England in his own right. But Gregory is writing not history but historical fiction, which has always been the refuge of dreamers, sighing romantics … and night-haunting Ricardians.