Archive for August, 2012

IT’S FICTION!!! But is it history?

Posted: August 20, 2012 in Books

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

I’ve never read a book by Philippa Gregory before. No, really, I haven’t. I’ve taken peeks at several and come to the conclusion that they weren’t my cup of tea. I resisted The White Queen and The Red Queen and the preposterously titled Lady of the Rivers, but when it came to the Nevills, I found I couldn’t just close my eyes to the existence of The Kingmaker’s Daughter. So I ordered a copy for my kindle and I read it.

I really hoped I’d be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t.

I wrote a piece a little while ago about historical fiction, specifically mediaeval, with female 1st person narrators. The Kingmaker’s Daughter did nothing to make me rethink any of it. I suggested that writers should read as many primary documents as they could get their hands on. In her references, Gregory mentions two. Anne Nevill tells the whole of the story, which involves a lot of breathless messengers and other characters telling her what’s been going on, we rarely see any of it happening. The book was full of forebodings, presentiments and foreshadowing – every time something went badly in the actual history, Anne or her sister, or someone, knows it was going to go badly. It gets a little wearying after a while.

When it comes to her characters, it’s as if Gregory sent a bulk order to some One Dimensional Character warehouse and unpacked them from their boxes, one at a time. The Bad Queen, the Coldhearted Mother, the Spiteful Sister, the Uncaring Husband, the Ambitious Father, the Beautiful Witch, the Pawn… And each of them has a little bag of Wash ‘n’ Wear Emotions to try on every now and then. The Spiteful Sister pulls on a white shroud and stands up – “Now, I’m going to do Grief” and off she goes.

The dialogue doesn’t sparkle or crackle. The characters spend a good deal of time telling each other what’s going on. There’s very little that could be called ‘intimate’ dialogue. And is it just this book, or does Gregory have difficulty with scenes containing more than two characters?

Little bits of the history are wrong enough to be irritating. Warwick was never known as ‘the kingmaker’ in his lifetime, whatever is claimed in the Author’s Note. Isobel was in Exeter when the Shit Hit the Fan, not Warwick Castle. Her dead son was buried at sea, with all that suggests – priests and a funeral, hurried though it might have been – not put in a box and tossed into the sea. The nephew of Warwick’s who was made Duke of Bedford and betrothed to Elizabeth of York was George, not John. Jaquetta Wydeville dies before her time. Anne takes her sister’s children into her home after her death. Anne’s mother, she tells us, was ‘wedded and bedded’ by the time she was fourteen. Wedded, yes, but bedded… who by? Her eleven year old husband? And there are others. Minor points for many, matters of some irritation for me.

Gregory seems to be of the opinion that all rumours must have basis in fact. George duke of Clarence, possibly in the depths of grief, believed his wife had been poisoned – therefore, she must have been poisoned. Jaquetta Wydeville was tried for witchcraft – therefore she must actually be a witch. With actual magic powers. Whistling up her ‘witch’s wind’ – mentioned ad nauseam – to blight the lives of Anne and her sister. Richard III was rumoured to be planning to marry his niece – therefore he must have had the hots for her. And so on. Maybe it takes a better writer than Gregory to have characters believe something to be true, believe in the reality of witchcraft, without making the reader believe it all as well.

The main character, Anne Nevill, is so very tedious that I found myself wanting to slap her. She cares about nothing and no-one but herself. Her father dies, she slaps on the My Father Died! emotion briefly, but I really didn’t get the sense that she gives tuppence. Her first husband comes into her life, ignores her, does his ‘duty’ by her at night, and is killed. And we don’t get any sense of how any of this affects her. In fact, we don’t really get a sense of how anything affects anyone. Various people are placed in scenes, given non-sparkling dialogue, they get to emote for a moment or two, then we move on to yet more of Anne’s explicatory inner monologue. I prefer a story to be carried by dialogue and action, rather than pages of explication, but that’s a matter of personal taste and preference. Many readers will, I’m sure, love it.

The characterisation and treatment of the Countess of Warwick left me shaking my head. Not only is she the coldest of Coldhearted Mothers, she tells her daughter things that her daughter must already have known, and, when the writer no longer has a use for her, she’s shuffled into a tower at Middleham and forgotten. My sympathy for Anne, never robust at the best of times, evaporated at this point. She is such a namby-pamby whiner.

Warwick himself, such a big character in life, is… nothing. I found this most perplexing. With Warwick, love him or hate him, a writer has such wonderful raw material to work with and Gregory made virtually nothing of him. No wonder his daughters have almost no reaction to his death. I was expecting Shouty Warwick (because he usually is in novels, whether I agree or not) and instead I got Non-entity Warwick. Which left me baffled and deeply disappointed.

Events whizz by so fast they left me dizzy. “You should be king!” Anne says to her husband and – just like that – he is king. “Oh, I had to kill some people, but hey ho!” he says. (Well, not quite…)

Some important characters were inexplicably missing, and some seem to have been included just to show that the author was aware they existed. John Nevill, Marquis Montagu and enormously important in his brother Warwick’s life and last rebellion, is mentioned in passing once; Archbishop Nevill twice. Neither appears on stage. Warwick’s natural daughter, Margaret, appears briefly from time to time and I was expecting a real role for her which never materialised. Then there was the mysterious Lady Sutcliffe whose sole job seems to have been to sow a seed of doubt in Isobel Nevill’s mind. She just walks into their bedroom, sows the doubt seed and walks out again! Anne’s first husband, Edward Prince of Wales, is pretty much a blank slate who halfheartedly insults his wife, and Margaret of Anjou is very oddly painted. For all Anne tells the reader from time to time that these people (and more) have a huge influence on her life, I didn’t ever feel it. The characters entirely failed to engage me. I found them all shallow and one-dimensional. Isobel alternately sneers at her sister and whispers her name plaintively. The complexity of their relationship is left unexplored. (“I was only pretending to hate you,” Isobel says (or words to that effect) and then they’re the best of friends again.)

Oh, and that K-word! It’s everywhere. It’s ‘kingmaker this’ and ‘kingmaker that’… Anne even refers to it as her father’s ‘title’. It wasn’t. Nor would Edward IV’s sons be referred to as ‘the Rivers boys’ – Rivers was their grandfather and uncle’s title, not their mother’s last name. And Clarence’s face turn… I’ve seen this kind of thing before. When he’s Anne’s enemy, he’s nasty and spiteful. When he suddenly becomes Elizabeth Wydeville’s enemy, he’s kind and noble and Wronged.

This was a damp squib of a book for me. I freely admit to rushing through the last few chapters and, to my shame, I couldn’t wait for the tedious, utterly unsympathetic and whiny heroine to die.