Philippa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers (2011)

Simon & Schuster, 2011

Who wouldn’t fall for a guy with the “finest collection of books and manuscripts outside the Church in Europe”?

Mind you, this is a time when a bookworm can’t necessarily slip a bound volume into her purse or pocket.

A work is as likely to be on a scroll and read at a tall table, perched on a high stool, as it is to be a book in the format we modern bookworms know and love.

But that’s the gift of a historical novelist; they tap into something that readers of today can understand, something supported by the details, not obliterated by them.

So, for instance, Philippa Gregory uses her main character’s surprise at seeing the 16th-century library for the first time as a reason to describe it directly through Jaquetta’s eyes.

Such a collection of works is unusual for that time and place, and this is not an opportunity for the author to show off her research, but a way in which the narrative is secured and propelled forward.

His own copyists, his own translators: this is a serious venture. ” ‘This is how I have put us ahead in the search for knowledge. Because I have tapped the source.’ He smiles, suddenly pleased with me. ‘Just as I have with you. I have gone to the very source of the mysteries.’ ”

I’m being deliberately vague about who ‘he’ is; neither the publisher nor the author are shy of discussing the events of Jacquetta’s life that are reflected in the historical record, but I did not want to know in advance whom she married, whom she loved, or whether those were one-and-the-same.

Though I did study English history in university, I’ve never been able to keep my Henry’s and Edward’s straight, and “The War of the Roses” is as likely to bring Kathleen Turner to mind as any of the women in this novel; I didn’t want the plot spoiled for me by the information on the cover flap and I’m not including any of those details in my bookchat here either.

(Quite likely I’m an odd duck on that score, so I can point you to Simon & Schuster’s page, which has a solid summary, a Browse Inside feature, and an audio excerpt, and the links to the short videos below will also interest those who are not quite as spoiler-phobic as I.)

But what I should clarify is that Jacquetta didn’t really “fall” for this man. And she certainly had no idea what lay behind those double doors at the end of the gallery.

She was simply following. First, she was following her father, who agreed to the marriage. Then she was following her husband through the corridors of the great house that she now inhabits.

It’s what women did in 16th-century Europe. And what women did and did not do is of primary importance to Philippa Gregory. Indeed, the revelation of the library is a very minor event in this story, although it does hint at the fact that others do place a certain importance on Jacquetta for reasons that are difficult to explain and that a woman with a certain kind of power is at the heart of this story, and the way in which the author subtly incorporates her extensive research into the narrative.

The author discovered Jacquetta’s story in the process of her research for The White Queen, and wanted to explore this question of the way in which women who did not have any political power still managed to exercise power through witchcraft and spirituality.

The fascinating aspect of Jacquetta’s position is that, although she does not have any direct power politically, nonetheless, she is on the periphery of major political events.

The novel’s first segment introduces an unexpected presence, with a prominent female personage just hanging out with the young Jacquetta. Reading along, I’m thinking, “That can’t be…”, but sure enough, it is her; no wonder the author was so intrigued by Jacquetta, because this point of contact immediately ignited my interest.

As the story develops, this continues and intensifies. “In the morning, the queen is heavy-eyed from a sleepless night. Again, she sends me to the king’s rooms to ask how is His Grace this morning?” And Jacquetta carries the message back, and she returns again, and conveys a message again. She is, literally, between the king and queen.

Eventually the king and queen meet. “He comes in looking grave and handsome and kneels before her till she tells him that he can sit. I stand absentmindedly between them and the rest of the ladies and his entourage, so that nobody can hear their quiet-voiced conversation above the ripple of the harp.”

But Jacquetta is close enough to count the sentences that are spoken and, indeed, it would seem likely that she hears the content of them, but chooses to maintain the silence tacitly requested of her.

Of course, this is historical fiction. Those who do not enjoy seeing historical figures brought to life on the page will still have plenty of opportunities to state that there is no way to know what exactly was said by the legendary and famous in the past.

But there are also many times, as in this example, in which Philippa Gregory opts for the less-intrusive approach.

On these occasions, she affords the reader (and, in a way, the historical figures themselves) a gap in which the reader can choose to insert their own assumptions or in which the historical figures can simply be, silent and removed.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, which is why my Henry’s and Edward’s remain in a muddle. But if The Lady of the Rivers is representative of Philippa Gregory’s approach, she is a delightful blend of the qualities that I’ve found in other historical fiction. The prose is readable and accessible, but the content is not light and the author’s treatment of it is not casual.

This novel does not have the solidity of Margaret George or Rosalind Miles, but neither does it have the slightly-samey feel that I remember from reading Jean Plaidy, Margaret Cameron Barnes, and Victoria Holt when I was a student and avoiding my textbooks.

I’m reminded of the bits of Mary Stewart and Colleen McCullough that I’ve read, and of Annemarie Selinko’s Désirée. Perhaps someone who has read more widely in this vein can suggest where she would fit here, and with the works of Sharon Penman, Edith Pargeter and Alison Weir, whose fiction I have not read.

This is my first Philippa Gregory. How about you?

Companion Read: Philippa Gregory’s The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, The Queen, and the King’s Mother (2011)

PS Philippa Gregory has a substantial online presence and, as such, there is an abundance of material for her readers. Here, she discusses the novel’s opening and gives a brief summary of Jacquetta’s role, her relationship to events of historical importance here, and the ways in which this novel intersects with other historical fiction she has written. But, take note: you will find out whose library this is!

 

2014-03-15T18:02:55+00:00

6 Comments

  1. Kat December 18, 2011 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    I must read this! I switched from Philippa Gregory to Jean Plaidy this year (they are surprisingly similar), but did enjoy whatever books about the Boleyns I read by her.

    The L.A. Times listed The Lady of the Rivers as one of their top books of the year.

    • Buried In Print December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Kat: you probably share some of my nostalgia for Plaidy, though it strikes me that Gregory is bringing something a little richer to the literary table? That’s probably the only book I’ve read on the L.A. Times’ list!

  2. Helen December 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    If you enjoyed this book, I think you would probably enjoy Philippa Gregory’s other two Cousins’ War novels, The White Queen and The Red Queen, which are very similar to this one but focus on two other women from the same period. I’ve only read one Sharon Penman book, The Sunne in Splendour, and I would highly recommend it – it’s one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve read.

    • Buried In Print December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Helen; I really don’t know why I took so long to give her a try but, yes, these others do sound good too. I think I like her idea of what makes a good story, so I should make a point of reading further! I’ll also make a note to try Penman…

  3. Sharkell December 13, 2011 at 5:45 am - Reply

    I love Philippa Gregory and have read most of her recent works, but not this one, and I have read a couple of her earlier books as well. I also love the way she does historical fiction, she keeps it interesting and they are well written and appear to be well-researched. I would put her on the same level as Sharon Penman, who I also love. I recently checked out an audio book of Jean Plaidy and had to put it back, I found it quite trashy.

    • Buried In Print December 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm - Reply

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, too, Sharkell. I had a good giggle over the trashy Jean Plaidy audiobook; I imagine it being some old set of cassettes that have been kicking around the library’s back room since the ’70s. Heh.

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'