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.

  1. I enjoyed your review very much – well written and entertaining!

  2. joan9221 says:

    Love your review. I couldn’t finish one of Gregory’s other books, so I was wondering if she learned anything about writing since then. It seems she’s forgotten stuff. At least her characters seemed two dimensional in the book I gonged.

  3. Flo says:

    Excellent review. I’m not surprised by your reaction. I, too, attempted several of Gregory’s book and found them appalling. One was simply disgusting.

  4. An extremely useful review – useful in the sense that I now feel no need to buy this book. Although I have to say it sounds a ripe subject for parody. But then again, parody is difficult when the original writer is almost writing parody in the first place!

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Brian. One thing I forgot to mention was that Anne’s voice didn’t change, didn’t ‘grow up’ in the 20 years of her life spanned in the book. I half expected her to stamp her foot from time to time.

  5. Esther says:

    Thanks for saving me the cost of the book. (Gregory’s theories, though, explain a lot … if Elizabeth Woodville and mom were witches, then the princes in the tower could have been safe at Hogwarts, for example … which would make it very difficult for either Richard III or Henry VII to explain what happened to them)

  6. paulalofting says:

    Thanks Karen, I suspect your review is more interesting than the book!

  7. Marina says:

    What a great review!
    I’ve read all 3 of Gregory’s Wars of the Roses books and I’m not surprised by the way this one’s written.
    Sure, this series is marginally better than the atrocious “The Other Boleyn Girl”, but still, PG’s books bring to mind a screen adaptation of a giant novel, or an ubridged version of one – very simplified and unconfusing to the average reader.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Martina. That’s the feeling I got from it as well. Nothing too difficult, or confronting. Moral ambiguity doesn’t exist in her books, and it’s one of my favourite things ever!

  8. Edward Tudor says:

    I enjoyed the review and you have saved me the price of the book.

  9. These are the problems I have had with Gregory’s books in the past. Red and White Queens were the exact same. Big personalities reduced to shadows; underwritten, underdeveloped and half-baked. Sounds like this is the same, and yet another to be avoided. Great review, Karen. 🙂

  10. Ellie Lewis says:

    Never a big PG fan, and I suspect I’ve Iearned more real history from your review than I would have by reading the book. The bigger issue for me is the run of the mill historical fiction readers accept her work as fact, and the inaccuracies are perpetuated. Thanks for your honest and forthright review.

  11. jayne62 says:

    Great review Karen. I really have to agree with you

  12. I’ve never read a Gregory book so far and this review, together with several others i read, won’t change that. 😛 Life is too short for bad books (except maybe, if you have a review blog).

  13. anevillfeast says:

    That’s what I said a few years ago about the Wars of the Roses, Gabriele. I wouldn’t speak too loudly if I were you.

  14. I’m about half way through this book and I have to say that I m enjoying it. From a historical point of view, I agree with your analysis and with the obvious historical inaccuracies – some of which are blatant.

    When I read historical fiction though I generally underline the word fiction. One of my favorite pastimes is reading a work of historical fiction and then reading the true history behind the story to see what was and was not real in the book. Fiction writers are at liberty to take a historical sketch and shape a story over the bones of history. Ms. Gregory’s work, in my opinion, can be very entertaining as long as you can accept that it is, truly, fiction loosely based on history.

    Thanks for your excellent review !

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Marie. My preferences for historical fiction is for about equal weight to be given to both the history and the fiction. There’s so much scope for creativity that I don’t understand the need for writers to change what’s known. I wish there were more people who went from the fiction to non-fiction, but you’re a member of a very small group! The inaccuracies in TKD were relatively minor (except for the Big One – the constant reference to the Earl of Warwick as ‘the kingmaker’ – that’s something that irritates the crap out of me!). And they probably make very little difference to most people’s enjoyment of her work. I guess I just didn’t enjoy the book from a number of angles. I figure that she has such a large readership now that I’m not going to be missed!

  15. Elen says:

    Thanks for the review. I was about to give Gregory another try with this book because it involves the Nevilles, but evidently, it is just as awful as her other novels. I am so glad to read someone else agrees with me about the titles of her novels. I am still mind-boggled by [The Red Queen] for Margaret Beaufort. It should have been the title of novel about Marguerite d’Anjou.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Elen, and thanks. Everyone I know assumed ‘The Red Queen’ was going to be about Margaret of Anjou as well – including someone who was writing a book about Margaret of Anjou! (Susan Higginbotham – Queen of Last Hopes. Check it out if you haven’t already – it’s good.)

  16. Anerje says:

    I was tempted to buy this book, but had a quick flick through it, and was glad I resisted. I’ve never been able to finish previous Gregory books either – mainly because they aim to ‘shock’ and are ridiculous! I gave up on the ‘Red and White’ Queens, and binned ‘Other Boleyn Girl’. I gather Elizabeth of York will be the subject of her next novel – Richard III’s secret lover – yawn!

  17. Kathleen Hestand says:

    I am glad I’m not the only non-fan of Philippa Gregory’s books. I tried The Other Boleyn Girl and couldn’t get past the historical inaccuracy. I’ve checked out the other ones, and they have predictable themes, so I didn’t buy them. I agree with Anerje above. Poor Elizabeth of York will be zeroed in on eventually. To me, the whole Elizabeth being in love with her uncle story is not only repugnant, but preposterous (I know about George Buck, a VERY questionable historian). This story gets swallowed whole cloth by most period novelists without any examination of it. It’s frustrating.

  18. Kathleen Hestand says:

    Oh you’re kidding! Unbelievable. Can’t wait for the movie!

  19. I wish I’d read this before I bought the book! It is a pity, as someone should try and do justice to Anne Neville.

  20. Renate says:

    Your review is spot on.
    This was my first Philippa Gregory book, too, and my last as well. I went into it rather unbiased, and came out utterly bored and disappointed. It really takes a lot to take all life out of this exciting material for a novel.

  21. Ishita says:

    Well, my fav book(fiction) that does justice to the period and the Characters of the WotR is by far Sunne in Splendor. And when I read the Kingmaker’s Daughter, it was excruciatingly painful. And I belong to the RIII forum and when I brought up some of the things that PG wrote in this book, you might imagine what the reaction was!! The Countess of Warwick was not declared dead but the parliamentary edict was ” her land should be forfeit as if she is dead”. Poor Richard gets blamed about stealing the unfortunate lady’s lands but this was another way for Edward IV to solve a thorny situation dealing with a rich widows who husband was a rebel. Richard did collude with this scheme but PG showing Richard has engineered the whole plot is another way to add to the muddle. Of course you can see I am partial(!!!) to Richard so I expect more thoroughness in a matter that is so controversial to start with. People who are not familiar with the period and the characters are going to learn the wrong things from this type of historical(?) fiction……..

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Isihta. Welcome to the Feast! I’m rather partial to Richard, myself, but I do believe he was fully involved in the scheme to separate the countess from her wealth. Gregory does seem to have misread or misinterpreted a couple of sources and her portrayal of the countess is extraordinary!

  22. Ishita says:

    Richard was not a onlooker for sure. But as the youngest brother, he did not have as much say as say the Golden King! The king needed to placate Clarence and reward Richard. What better way to do it than steal a woman’s land who has no one to protect her. Richard wanted those lands to have more control over the north and was not above colluding with the brothers! Oh yeah, it bothered me that PG mentioned in the passing that Richard had the Neville lands transferred to his name if he divorced Anne. PG should have at least mentioned that this clause was inserted to protect Anne’s land. The clause also said , Richard cannot remarry if he wanted to hold these lands and was required to procure a dispensation( they had a partial dispensation……). If a novelist wants to mention something, I would hope she covered the entire ground and not throw misleading info to unsuspecting readers!! Well, not everyone can write like Sharon Kay Penman:)

    • anevillfeast says:

      Yes, this is an example of Gregory misreading or misunderstanding the sources. As to Richard being the ‘youngest brother’ and not having a lot of say, quite often the same people who cite this as a reason for lessening his involvement in the business of the countess quite happily point out that he (according to the rolls of parliament) persuaded Edward not to attaint John Nevill. I can’t quite get my head around that: if something was done that wasn’t to Richard’s credit, then had no real say it in, somebody else was responsible; if it was to his credit, then, of course, he was able to persuade his brother, the king. It’s part of the head spinning shifts of logic I can’t quite keep up with!

  23. Celia Parker says:

    I’ve liked one or two of PG’s earlier novels- I did think ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ conveyed a good sense of the dangerous, backstabbing nature of Henry VIII’s court (indeed any court of the time)- but I suspect she’s now writing to publisher’s order (‘You’ve done the Tudors, how about a nice contract for 6 novels on the Wars of the Roses. Sorry the Cousins’ War’) and it shows.

    I haven’t read the latest, but I heard her interviewed on Radio 4 when it came out and she complained that it had been difficult to write about Anne Neville, because so little was known about her. ‘But’, I yelled at the radio, ‘you’re a novelist, woman! Make it up!’ The reason for her difficulty may be explained by another interview where she referred to ‘we historians’ – she makes a great deal of her ‘research’, which seems mainly to involve reading secondary and a few well-known printed primary sources (I’m open to correction on this one). And of course there are very few sources for AN as Michael Hicks found when he wrote a totally unnecessary biography and ended up writing about her father and husbands, interspersed with lots of ‘may haves’ and ‘would haves’.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi Celia. The cynical side of my nature suspects that the whole ‘Cousins War’ thing is designed to distract readers from the many many novels already written about the Wars of the Roses so that Gregory can claim to have ‘rescued’ these women from ‘historical oblivion’.Anne is a difficult character to write about, but others have managed it without annoying me quite so much.

      • Celia Parker says:

        No-one ever seems to suggest that Anne was anything other than wonderful and virtuous, the benefit of dying young, I suppose and of being rather badly treated by her husband who was apparently cheerfully looking for a new wife before she died. I find myself wondering if she wasn’t rather taken by the notion of being queen in 1483- after all she’d had a near-miss in 1471. Ladies of her rank were not usually retiring little things, but active in promoting their husband’s/family’s interests and she was both daughter and wife of very prominent, ambitious and, dare I say it, not wholly scrupulous men.

  24. anevillfeast says:

    Celia, my feelings about Anne run along very similar lines. The only way to construct mousy !VictimAnne is to give her an overbearing, uncaring and very shouty father and some kind of non-functioning mother. I just don’t understand how novelist after novelist insists on writing a Warwick who cares nothing for his daughters. It makes me rather cross!

  25. Ishita says:

    Here we go again with “Bad King Richard”!
    A king was as much a pawn in the marriage market as any woman of high birth. Edward IV’s refusal to be that pawn led to his fraction with Warwick. Richard’s Council was starting to negotiate a double marriage (Richard’s as well as Elizabeth of York) with Manuel and Johanna of Portugal but not till Anne was in death bed. Richard’s lack of a true heir was an issue with the council and the people of England. This was another political decision a King has to make. Richard was actually pretty broken up after Anne’s death and reported to have cried at her funeral (which he could not attend officially, of course)……..But then I am partial to Richard :).
    One novel where I think Richard as well as Anne are portrayed realistically is the Seventh Son. Richard is neither a saint or a villain in this book. And Anne is not a simpering fool. Highly recommend it.

  26. tudorqueen6 says:

    I’m just reading this now. Wow. How did I miss it? Yeah, I was the same way. She is going to write about the Nevill family? Oh my. Dreadful book that ended horribly. Very disappointed.

  27. Dawn Likha says:

    I’m still halfway through the book but I’m already not big on it. *yawns* Well, I wouldn’t say they were exactly one-dimensional, I do think that Philippa Gregory does try to make her characters broader and more morally ambiguous at times but if so, she’s a more or less epic fail at that and her characters IMO only succeed so far as to be two-dimensional.
    Her writing style can truly be bland, dull, tedious, and repetitive though occasionally, it can be exciting and suspenseful but other than that, she is not a very good writer. Decent and clear, but not enough to make it to my list of excellent authors in different genres. Perhaps she would be better writing off YA fiction or another genre where her writing skills may improve outside the area of historical fiction where she’s definitely not excelling (in terms of actual quality of work), who knows.
    Also no matter what she says, I don’t think this can be really touted as ‘feministic’ or something similar and one of the main reasons would be the glaring, cutthroat competitiveness amongst her main female characters which is simply awful because there’s no actual evidence that they really hated each other to the point they are depicted in the books/TV series. >_<

  28. Ruth Crumpton says:

    Having tried PG, I thought “The Virgin Widow” by Anne O’Brien was considerably better, though it still covers the whole “they adored each other from childhood” thing. Personally, I think they looked at each other, thought “we know each other, we get on ok, we can help each other out: he can help get the lands/her lands can give me the wealth to back up the power” and teamed up.

    The funny thing is, I’m sure I read another novel called “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” not so long ago but I don’t remember the author and we’ve moved since so almost all my books are still boxed up!

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Ruth! I haven’t read ‘Virgin Widow’ yet. I think Anne and Richard’s marriage was, at heart (and as you say) based entirely in practicality. This shouldn’t prevent it being a success. While few people married ‘for love’, at the time, from what I can work out ‘love’ between married couples was what they strived for. There’s no need for Anne and Richard to have ‘married for love’ for love, or at least deep affection and a strong partnership, to have developed. I think your summation is pretty good!

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