I really enjoy Philipa Gregory’s books, especially those that cover the “War of the Roses” when the Houses of York and Lancaster and people with close ties of kinship to these great people jostled for power and the English throne.
The Kingmaker’s Daughter is the story of a woman who is often dimmed by the brightness and strong personalities of those who surrounded her, Anne Neville, the youngest daughter of the great warrior and “kingmaker” the Earl of Warwick. In this book, Gregory sets out to tell her tale, from a first person point of view, and accord the young woman who commenced as little more than a pawn in her father’s political games, to become, albeit briefly, the Queen of England, some agency. There’s a sense then in which Gregory is using historical fiction to accomplish revisionist and feminist history and, in that, she succeeds.
The problem with this book, for me, was twofold: firstly, I had not long read Sharon Kay Penman’s magnificent The Sunne in Splendour, another well-researched and beautifully detailed account of both Edward and Richard’s reigns – a period Gregory also covers. In Penman’s book, which is at least twice the length, Anne features strongly and sympathetically. She may be quiet and susceptible to other’s manipulations, but she’s also kind, intelligent and capable of making decisions. She’s a fully rounded and realised character – when rarely disappoints you because you understand her motivation and the context in which she behaves. Compared to Penman’s novel, in particular her portrayal of Anne Neville, Gregory’s doesn’t stack up so well. Anne comes across as weak, ineffectual, whiny, and a bit two-dimensional and very predictable – beyond women’s social roles and limitations in that period. Often her behaviour is inexplicable and it’s hard to escape the notion that thoughts and actions are being shaped to match history in ways that don’t always stay true to the character being created.
Secondly, in this novel, the other characters are far more interesting and engaging than mousy Anne. Contrasted to the splendid and at times diabolical Elizabeth Woodville, King Edward’s queen and her mother, Jacquetta, never mind her elder sister Isabel, Anne is a poor second best, despite being the main character. Her readiness to believe those who shouldn’t be trusted seems to serve the story and this interpretation of history more than it does logic. When she has the occasional nasty thought about someone or wishes ill upon them, it doesn’t appear to be in keeping with the woman the reader has had access to since childhood. It’s hard to explain without giving away plot spoilers.
But kudos to Gregory for offering a different interpretation to well-known historical events, such as the changing faces on the throne, the wars, the alliances, the internment of the princes in the tower, and the swiftly changing politics throughout this period. In keeping with her series, she eludes to the Rivers’s connection with the goddess Melusina and their supposed “magic” powers/use of witchcraft. Again, I didn’t enjoy references to this nearly as much as I did in the other books in this series such as Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen.
I found the first part of the book to be slow and ponderous, even though I love this period but Gregory is very skilled at giving details of the time without being obviously didactic. The second half of the book was a much better read and even a real page-turner, as events leading up to Richard taking the throne mean a fast pace is established and maintained and the machinations of the nobles come to a head. Knowing what happens doesn’t spoil it; there’s a certain pleasure to stacking up a good fictive interpretation against known facts
Overall, this is a better than good fictive version, despite my reservations, that history buffs and those who like Gregory’s books will appreciate.