01 October, 2008

Daughter of York, by Anne Easter Smith. Book review.

Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2008, ISBN 978-0-7432-7731-0. 557 pages.

Set in England and the Burgundian Low Countries (approximately modern Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of northern France) in 1461–1480, Daughter of York tells part of the story of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Most of the main characters are historical. Margaret’s ladies-in-waiting are fictional, including her close confidante the Italian dwarf Fortunata, who is quite an important secondary character, and there’s a walk-on part for Kate Haute, heroine of the author’s previous novel A Rose for the Crown.

Since the deaths of her father and brother in the struggle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster for the English throne, known to history as the Wars of the Roses, Margaret of York has understood that family prestige comes before all else, however high its price. As a woman, she knows that her contribution to the power of the York family will be to make a political marriage. When the time comes, Margaret embarks on the glittering match her family has chosen for her, determined to do her duty to her family, her new husband, and her new country. But Margaret has a dangerous secret; she has fallen hopelessly in love with another man, the handsome and cultured Sir Anthony Woodville. Can Margaret keep her secret, and will she ever know happiness in love?

I admit the first few chapters of Daughter of York nearly put me off, as our tall, striking and intelligent heroine establishes her ‘relevance’ to modern readers by dreading the prospect of being “used as a pawn” in an arranged marriage, despising her maids in waiting as “simpering” girls, and ogling handsome heralds. Fortunately, these warning signals turned out to be largely false alarms, and during the rest of the book most of Margaret’s behaviour was more or less plausible for a medieval lady. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the novel turned out to be a plethora of historical detail. In the Question and Answer interview at the back of the book, the author says, “….if we had them, almost all the pages of my book would have a surprising number of footnotes,” and I can well believe it. Sometimes the sheer weight of research information got a little tedious for my taste, and I found myself skimming descriptions of Margaret’s costumes and lists of dishes served at feasts. But readers who want to know what the well-dressed duchess was wearing in 1470, the menu for a coronation banquet, or the method for making blue pigment for illuminated manuscripts, will love Daughter of York. Sometimes there was a wry little aside to leaven the mix, such as a comment about the unflattering effect of the fashionable ultra-short men’s coat on a middle-aged courtier of ample girth, or the tendency of a two-foot steeple hennin (those tall cone-shaped head-dresses worn by great ladies at the time) to poke people in the eye.

Margaret is the central character, and although the novel is narrated in third person almost everything is seen from Margaret’s point of view. Luckily she is a fairly sympathetic narrator, intelligent, sensible and interested in the world around her. The role of a great lady involved much more than looking decorative and doing tapestry. For a start, managing an aristocratic household of well over a hundred people, all with different ranks and responsibilities, was far from an easy job. A modern analogy might be the Managing Director of a five-star hotel, or, in Margaret’s case with well over a dozen ducal residences, a chain of five-star hotels. Watching Margaret establish her authority over her staff, using a mixture of charm, tact and – when all else fails – blackmail, demonstrates her evident talent for what would today be called personnel management. As her husband spends most of his time away at war, leaving Margaret to run his dukedom in his absence, her role also has large components of Ambassador and Prime Minister thrown in. I found Margaret’s political ability much more interesting than her rather tepid – and, it seemed to me, rather one-sided – romance with Anthony Woodville, and was disappointed that the novel ended in 1480. By finishing then it misses out the years in which Margaret was effectively ruler of Burgundy and made Henry Tudor’s life a misery by funding successive attempts to unseat him, leading him to call her “this Diabolicall Duchess”. Still, Perkin Warbeck appears in a cameo role, with sufficient detail of his identity and history to suggest that he may be going to be the central character in a sequel, so perhaps this part of Margaret’s life will be explored then.

I didn’t find the (fictional) romance between Margaret and Anthony Woodville at all convincing. The author is candid that the relationship is fictional, based on a visit by Margaret to Anthony’s estate in Kent on her way to Dover and on their shared love of books. I don’t have a problem with that – we don’t know that they didn’t have a romance, so it’s fair game to imagine one – but Anthony’s behaviour in the novel was hard to reconcile with a genuine love for Margaret. The author says in her Author’s Note, “…men have a hard time facing conflict in a romantic relationship, and I imagined he was no different,” which to me seems decidedly lame.

Among the secondary characters, it was good to meet William Caxton, famous for having introduced the printing press to England. In the novel he is a gruff, canny, competent merchant adventurer, on whom Margaret can rely when she needs discreet help with mildly nefarious activities. Margaret’s husband, Charles le Temeraire (Charles the Bold), whom I had previously encountered as the defeated adversary of a local French heroine called Joan the Hatchet, is scarcely developed beyond a self-important bully. No doubt this helps to justify Margaret’s romantic yearnings elsewhere, but I got no sense of how Charles had managed to build up Burgundy into a rich and powerful, if short-lived, military empire.

The novel is mainly written in modern English, with no expletives that I noticed. A lot of archaic words and phrases are used, and readers who aren’t experts in the terminology of the European Middle Ages will probably find it helpful to bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where most of them are explained. There’s a list of characters at the front of the book, with notes identifying which are fictional and which historical, and a helpful family tree showing the inter-relationships of the Houses of York and Lancaster. There’s also a map showing the locations mentioned in the novel, very helpful for following Margaret’s journeys around Burgundy. At the back of the book, an Author’s Note and an interview with the author in the form of a question-and-answer session help to separate historical fact from fiction.

Detailed description of life in fifteenth-century Burgundy as seen by Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy and sister of Edward IV and Richard III.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great review! I agree, I would have liked to have seen much more of Margaret as leader, especially after 1480, and much less of the long-distance romance with Anthony.

Daphne said...

Thanks for the review. I have this one coming up on my TBR list soon. I'm looking forward to it!

Antonia Woodville said...

I am Antony Woodville's biographer. Accordingly I have a Google alert set up for any reference to his name and your excellent review came to view this morning. There are no records to show that Antony (without the H, incidentally, EVERY book outside the medieval ones spell it wrongly, the H did not arrive until the end of the 16th century and he died in 1483) was ever unfaithful to his first wife and it is likely he was equally faithful to his second wife, as he was a pious and devout man who went on many pilgrimages. I have found nothing to indicate otherwise and this supposed romance is actually an insult to his memory but still ... these things happen in fiction. He is more of a mystery man to many, which is why they invent things about him. To me he is a very real and living person with all the foibles of a living person (having delved so deeply into his life) and the biography should reflect this.
My opinions on why he was executed will have to wait for the biography to be in print.
that is also the reason I adopt his name as my screen name.

Carla said...

Susan - thanks. I felt the romance didn't work at all and wondered why it was there.

Daphne - I'll be interested to see you what you think of it!

Antonia - hello and welcome. I've seen Antony Woodville described as a Renaissance courtier ahead of his time, so he should be an interesting subject for a biography. As I said in the review, I thought the fictional romance was unsatisfactory even in the novel. To her credit, the author was honest in her author's note that it was fictional, which at least means readers won't be left thinking it had a basis in fact.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the excellent review Carla.
It's probably not one for my TBR pile at the moment as I didn't particularly get on with the author's first novel.
Antonia, I think an author has a duty, even when inventing an affair, to behave with integrity towards a historical person's known character. Still, if little is known about a character beyond academia, what is a novelist to do?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Argh, I wish authors would stop feeling obliged to tack a cheesy romance onto everything.

That one gets on the Some time when I have money to spare-list. :)

Jules Frusher said...

Great review Carla - even though I don't get time to read all of these books, it's good to at least get a feel for what they're about - so thanks!

Carla said...

Elizabeth - I haven't read the first one, although I gather it's a romance involving Richard III. I'll probably give it a try some time. I think the issue is whether the fictional events (romances or anything else) are in keeping with what's known about the character(s), or if very little is known, at least not at odds. I don't know enough about Ant(h)ony Woodville or Margaret to make a judgment on that in this case. The author says in her author's note that she had real trouble finding any spaces in Margaret's exceptionally well-documented life at Burgundy (they had an industrious court chronicler, it seems) into which an affaire could fit, and I personally think that would have given me pause. But, each to his own, and to her credit she came clean in the author's note. I can forgive authors a lot of liberties if they're honest about them.

Gabriele - so do I, but I suppose that just means we aren't the target market :-)

Lady D - That's what I'm aiming to do, to give a feel for what a book is about so that people can judge whether they might want to read it. Alas, none of us has time to read everything!