“The Lady of the Rivers” Philippa Gregory (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Lady of the Rivers Philippa Gregory book cover

Jacquetta, great-niece to the Demoiselle of Luxembourg in fifteenth century France largely annexed by the English, is warned, “She tried to walk in the common ways; but some women cannot put their feet to that path. This is a man’s world, Jacquetta, and some women cannot march to the beat of a man’s drum.” The  Demoiselle has been protecting Joan of Arc but her widower gives Joan to the Church to be tried. Jacquetta, a teenager, is forced to watch, “I am here to witness what happens to a woman who thinks she knows more than men,” isn’t entirely accurate. Within days of his wife’s death, Jacquetta is married to the Duke of  Bedford, heir to the English throne: a magnificent alliance for her family. The marriage is unconsummated, however, as the Duke of Bedford has other ideas for his young bride. He needs a virgin to assist in his work towards alchemy and wants her second sight to see his future. But her great-aunt has not trained Jacquetta so she struggles to fulfil her lord’s wishes. Meanwhile, his right hand man, Richard Woodville teaches Jacquetta to ride and befriends her as the household moves to England.

She soon finds herself a young widow and faces the prospect of the king marrying her to an influencial nobleman after a decent dowry and a young bride. Despite being in love with her, Richard Woodville is reluctant to marry her because of his relatively lowly status which will mean she will have to forfeit her dowry and lands and become poor. Jacquetta, however, takes fate into her own hands and becomes pregnant, forcing Woodville to marry her. Initial banishment from the court is soon overturned. Woodville’s skills in leadership and battle are far too useful to the king. Jacquetta is also aware that it’s only by being at court that she can secure her daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, in advantageous marriages. More children follow to bring the total to sixteen. Jacquetta is made lady in waiting to the young queen, Margaret of Anjou on the basis that she’s fluent in French. But the young queen is naïve and constantly disappointed that Henry VI can’t seem to get her pregnant and it seems not to occur to her that a pregnancy after eight years of barren marriage will not only look suspicious but give Richard of York the leverage to overturn his exile from court and even challenge the queen’s son.

There is a tendency for repetition which makes some conversations sound stilted. For example Margaret of Anjou and Jacquetta are more or less alone in the queen’s private chambers and yet during the conversation, Margaret refers to “Richard Duke of York” even though the conversation is not overheard and she can’t stand the man, thinking him a usurper trying to claim the throne from her husband. It’s as if the writer feels readers need reminding of the status of the main characters and how they are related to one another. There’s a lengthy, contemporary explanation of how powerless Margaret is when the Lord Protector, ruling on behalf of an ill King Henry VI, commands her to Windsor Castle. Jacquetta compares it to a lady managing the estates on behalf of her husband unfairly having to hand the keys back on his return even though she has proved herself capable of management, when all readers need to know is that Margaret can’t argue back: with her husband incapacitated, she has no option and risks being charged with treason, punishable by death, if she doesn’t comply.

Using Jacquetta as the narrating character could be a disadvantage. She is a witness rather than a major player as Henry VI and Margaret’s naïve choice of advisors bring England to civil war. This gives Jacquetta a neutrality as she offers advice, usually ignored, and reads Tarot cards and other charms. However, it can create a distancing effect for readers looking to be thrown into the midst of an emotional drama. Philippa Gregory compensates for this with a wealth of historical detail, showing how confined and limiting the lives of these wives were. “The Lady of the Rivers” isn’t as strong as “The Boleyn Inheritance” but still worth a read.

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