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

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I am fond of Gloucester so the “barking bully” characterisation was never going to please me even if it has become common in the work of historians working to redeem the Beauforts. I do hope it won't be too long before Annie Garthwaite continues her portrait of this captivating, and often neglected woman, as she faces further triumphs and traumas in the next period of her long and tumultuous life. Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Jane Shore, Kate Haute, Elizabeth of York, and the indomitable Margaret of Anjou. At home, power-hungry men within a corrupt government manipulate a weak king – and name Cecily’s husband, York’s loyal duke, an enemy.

While Lytton-Bulwer’s work is objectively superior and transcends historical fiction even when focused on the same events, this one has no ‘deeper meaning/insight into the human condition’. 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. Admittedly, that might be become I’m more interested in that period of history than the later years. Cecily was a pivotal figure being Duchess of York and mother of two kings ( Edward IV and Richard III and grandmother to a third ( Edward V).

Happily, Garthwaite doesn’t do this – the Hundred Years War sections are dealt with marvellously and the weight of the history behind them helps to contribute to the frustrations with Henry and his court. It has the immediacy of Mantel - written in first person, the book makes you feel ‘with’ Cecily, throughout her trials and triumphs. Garthwaite has this incredible skill for being able to draw these incredibly detailed, memorable character sketches with only a few words or lines.

Some of the other characterisations are so bare that we often get a figure reduced to one thing/personality trait - Warwick: Swaggery, Holland: His dogs, Elizabeth and Richard Woodville: their hair colour. In the same vein, Humphrey of Gloucester is set up as the villain in the first half of this book (for no real reason), but his downfall is dealt with in a paragraph or two. Image: Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, and her six daughters, from the Neville Book of Hours. On the other hand their lives were recognisably different, for example accepting infant mortality and the sheer Hobbesian brutishness of life. This is why I never miss the chance to sing Jarman’s praises no matter how often she defames my favourites or busts out with her extreme Richardianism.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. Wszystko to zamknięte w pełnej rozmachu powieści historycznej, w której ta wielka historia dzieje się na naszych oczach. It’s this flaw that makes Cecily’s reads of other characters more understandable – sure, she might dislike someone but she also tends to dislike everyone, especially other women. Cecily’s role in these events seems overplayed (see above, regarding the flight from Ludlow), but perhaps not by much. It all happened in an era before feminism was a spoken word or even an idea, but you will be amazed to find out how many women played crucial roles in the Wars of the Roses.

Also shout-out to me feeling warm and gooey when Warwick was a proud papa at Isabel’s birth or whenever George’s Irish birth was referred to (her little Irish dragon 🥲).It’s what suggested by the historical record and the work of Matthew Lewis, who she cites as an influence in her acknowledgements. Where Cecily is fierce and combative, Richard is conciliatory and calm, reluctant to show open defiance.

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