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Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

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The Lady of the Rivers is Philippa Gregory’s third novel in her “Cousins War” series about the English Wars of the Roses. Through the eyes of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, we experience the events leading up to the fall of the Red Rose (House of Lancaster — Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou) — and the rise of the White Rose (House of York, Edward IV).

Happily, I don’t know much about this period of history, so I read unencumbered by how much license Gregory might have taken, or not, with historical facts. Moreover, I understand few historians have researched Jacquetta, so this was an opportunity to create exciting fiction around real historical events. Sadly for me, because I am a Philippa Gregory fan, this book lacked the excitement I expected.

The novel begins in France with the capture and immolation of Joan of Arc, who Jacquetta has befriended while Joan awaits sentencing. Joan is used to introduce the gift of Sight and scrying talents Jacquetta inherited from her water-goddess ancestor Melusina, and serves as a warning that no good comes to those who hear voices or see into the future.

In Gregory’s first novel in the trilogy, The White Queen, she introduced Melusina, the water goddess, much to my annoyance because I just did not see the need for it and I felt it took away from the plot. I thought it was strange, even though both the Jacquetta and her daughter Elizabeth (the White Queen) are supposedly descended from said mythical woman. In Lady of the Rivers I made peace with Melusina and her mystical water goddess powers — only because I decided her superstitions and beliefs were reasonable in context of the age.

But just as I got comfortable and acclimatised, Jacquetta became uncomfortable with her gift and this discomfort takes away some of the Melusina’s credibility, and also robs the story of some dramatic tension it could have used.

Jacquetta’s marriage to the Duke of Bedford, uncle to King Henry VI, brings her to the England. Upon the Duke’s death, she marries for love, to his squire Richard Woodville. They spend much of the book apart, with Richard engaged in defense of Lancaster in Calais.. He comes home from war, she gets pregnant, he leaves…comes home when baby is born, gets her pregnant again…in sum, once they are married, the entire relationship loses its dramatic tension and this great love that she married “beneath her station” for feels matter-of-fact

This period of history is full of rebellion, lies, betrayals and good old-fashioned skullduggery, to which Jacquetta bears witness as the BFF of Henry VI’s increasingly war-hungry wife, Margaret of Anjou. Jacquetta trails Margaret up and down England as the two factions – York and Lancaster – square off, primarily at Margaret’s instigation. Margaret is driven by love of the Beauforts and especially Edmund Beaufort — and schemes right down to foisting her lover’s child on Henry VI as his heir, or so the book implies. I’m not sure why it merely implies, but there you have it.

I did not fully buy into the friendship between the two women. Jacquetta was loyal, but I did not feel she held real affection for Margaret until Jacquetta said so at the end of the novel. Margaret, on the other hand, definitely thought she had a friend.

In fact, I understood Margaret of Anjou much better than I did Jacquetta.
Margaret’s character arc is much more pronounced – you see her transition from a simple bride to a hard-headed, unyielding ruler who in refusing to include the Yorkist faction in governing the realm, loses it altogether and plunges England into wars lasting two generations. Margaret was fierce, decisive, and honest in her loves and hates. Jacquetta was a woman in love and standing by her family in the beginning of the novel and in the end – she did not evolve much.

I’ve read nearly everything Philippa Gregory has written— and have 10 of her novels on my bookshelf as I write. I did not care for the Wideacre Trilogy recurring incest theme. I loved the Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen’s Fool, The Boleyn Inheritance and The Constant Princess, yet have been so-so about everything since The Other Queen.

As I think about why, it is likely because the Tudor novels were a fresh take on well-known historical figures — interesting perspectives, plausible plot lines, even if historically inaccurate. The “Cousins War” series goes into less charted territory, but is more straightforward with it. I like my Gregory novels with as bit more of the unexpected, which I hope I’ll see when I buy the 11th one.

Philippa I have not given up on you!

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