Author: Philippa Gregory
Series: The Cousins’ War, Book 3
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: October 2011
Readers first met Jacquetta in The White Queen, as mother of King Edward IV’s commoner queen, Elizabeth Woodville. The Lady of the Rivers is the compelling prelude to this tale and begins with Jacquetta as a young woman of rare beauty possessing the mixed blessing of second sight.
Jacquetta rises swiftly through marriage to the Duke of Bedford, English Regent of France, who introduces her to a mysterious world of learning and alchemy. Yet the Duke shows little interest in his new bride beyond her ability to divine the future, and Jacquetta’s only solace in the great household is the handsome squire Richard Woodville, who is at her side when she is left a wealthy young widow. The two become lovers and marry in secret, eventually returning to England to serve at the court of the young King Henry VI, where Jacquetta becomes a close and loyal friend to his queen, Margaret of Anjou.
The Woodvilles soon occupy a privileged place at the very heart of the Lancaster court, though Jacquetta can sense the growing threat of revolt from the people of England. When the king slips into an inexplicable sleep, the kingdom is divided into the rival camps of Margaret and her untrustworthy advisors and the followers of Richard, Duke of York, who threatens to claim the throne. Jacquetta must navigate a treacherous path along both sides of the battle lines as the safety of her family and the rule of the House of Lancaster hang in the balance.
I wasn’t as excited about this book when I heard about who it would be focused on, especially since the planned fourth book in the series will feature Elizabeth of York and picks up where the first two books in the series left off, chronologically. I thought visiting Jacquetta was a step backwards. However, I found the book as entertaining and educational as all of Gregory’s historical fiction and it was nice to get extra context into all of the relationships and figures involved this turbulent time in English history.
Jacquetta was a refreshingly different heroine. Her focus was not on achieving political power, status or wealth, like so many women of her day. She was handed her Duchess title because of her innocence and heritage and during that fated first marriage learned that fulfilling her desire to be a woman—a passionate wife, loving mother and good friend—was what was ultimately important. She did have power, status and wealth but you always felt that she would’ve traded it all for a quiet life in the country with her family.
Jacquetta and her second husband Richard’s relationship was one of real love and fidelity and lots of children, which was extremely sweet. She married him because she loved him, simple as that. In most historical fiction I’ve read, so many of the relationships are plagued with infidelity and infertility. It adds drama, sure, but after a while I am starting to believe that no one in the 15th and 16th centuries had a normal family dynamic. It was also nice to know that Richard didn’t meet an early death or disability and even though they were apart, they always found their way back to each other.
The introduction of alchemy, divining and Jacquetta’s sight added an original, mystic air to the story, while still keeping it grounded in the realities of history. This theme runs throughout the book firstly with actual alchemy—trying to create the philosopher’s stone with Jacquetta’s pure virgin touch, for example—which was commonly believed to be possible then. Later on, when alchemy is considered against the law, mysticism would affect the story more discreetly, through tarot card readings or my personal favourite, charms that Jacquetta’s grandmother left her, which she would tie onto strings and leave in a river and whichever one would stay on after some time has passed would represent the answer. I even enjoyed the simple gesture many characters use of drawing a circle in the air to represent the ‘Wheel of Fortune’. I loved these little touches because I enjoyed finding out what the symbolism eventually meant. The events in the book were a Wheel of Fortune, indeed.
Passionless husbands and stronger women in court was another common theme in the book. Margaret of Anjou was equal parts frustrating and admirable, for her seemingly obvious adultery that ultimately caused the King’s descent into that mad, bizarre extended sleep-like state, but also for the way she stood up to all the Dukes hungry for her husband’s throne. Even then, I found the sections on the war in England and France were onerous, even with all the strategizing that I normally enjoy. There were so many different factions and alliances and lot of the characters who the war focused on were peripheral at best due to the story being told from Jacquetta’s point of view. It was hard to care too much when someone died or when they lost yet another French town. As the book wore on, I started to care less and less about the tussle for power between Margaret, the Duke of York and everyone else in between.
I also have to admit that I know very little about the War of the Roses and due to this I’ve missed some nuances in the story-telling. Little hints of irony about what things are to come, especially throughout many of Jacquetta’s ‘fortune-telling’ visions of the future was lost on me and I wish I brushed up on my history before reading it. Others that are very familiar with the story would’ve found just that bit more entertaining. All in all, it was a fine read and I certainly learned a lot. However, all it made me crave for is the last book in the series and I felt as if this book was a good backdrop, but mostly filler.
Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advanced copy for review.