Author – Philippa Gregory
Published – 2011
Genre – Historical fiction
Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, was married to the great Englishman John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of nineteen she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her house-hold for love, and then carved out a life for herself as Queen Margaret of Anjou’s close friend and a Lancaster supporter – until the day that her daughter Elizabeth Woodville fell in love and married the rival king Edward IV. Of all the little-known but important women of the period, her dramatic story is the most neglected. With her links to Melusina, and to the founder of the house of Luxembourg, together with her reputation for making magic, she is the most haunting of heroines.
This is the first Philippa Gregory title I have read, and it’s the third book in the series (the White Queen and the Red Queen predating this in the Cousins’ War Series). The story of The Lady of the Rivers spans over 30 years, and the period, the early years of the Wars of the Roses or the Cousins at War, is one not often covered in fiction.
The book opens in 1430. Jacquetta is a young girl when her house plays “host” to Joan of Arc. This is a first-hand opportunity for Jacquetta to see how a young woman can become powerful, but be brought down by accusations of witchcraft.
After Joan of Arc’s execution Jacquetta comes to the attention of the Duke of Bedford, the English Regent inFrance, and after the death of his wife a marriage between the Duke and Jacquetta is swiftly arranged. This sees Jacquetta become a member of the House of Lancaster. The Duke isn’t interested in his young bride for her looks, but for her reputed mystical abilities. The young Jacquetta helps him as best she can, but the visions she has are hard to interpret. It’s not long before the Duke dies and Jacquetta becomes involved with his squire, Richard Woodville. Despite marrying Woodville without the permission of King Henry VI, the couple soon become accepted at court.
Then Jacquetta’s story begins in earnest. As the Dowager Duchess ofBedfordshe already has high status, but when the marriage between the King and Margaret of Anjou is arranged, she is called on to support the new Queen as she makes her first journey to her new home inEngland. This places Jacquetta at the centre of the court, and she is recognised as being the second most important woman in England.
In the following years she continues to support the Queen, especially through the birth of the heir to the throne, and the incapacity of the King. Despite the demands of the court and the fact that her husband is frequently sent away for long periods, she also manages to have many children, who live in the family home in Grafton, Northamptonshire.
Narrated in the first-person by Jacquetta we’re privy to her struggles to deal with her husband’s nearly perpetual absence, the secrets that she must keep on behalf of the Queen, and the occasional spot of “witchcraft”. She remains loyal to the Queen despite the initial turmoil between the Lancaster and York families, and the King’s illness. However I felt that she conveyed a sense of being dutiful rather than powerful. Even when the Queen was completely unreasonable and Jacquetta could see the damage being done to the country, she still stood by her.
Gregory is obviously a consummate storyteller and well-practised at delivering historical fiction. While the details serve to evoke the period and demonstrate the author’s knowledge, the narrative never gets bogged down in lengthy descriptions. The language gives a period style and feel without descending into doth and thou. Unfortunately, as this is not a period of great equality, the ladies do a lot of waiting around waiting for messengers to come telling them what has happened.
I felt a little uncomfortable with some of the more “mystical” aspects of the story, but these didn’t detract from the book as a whole, and with the accusations of witchcraft it would have been difficult to leave them out.
It is perhaps odd that this is the third in the Cousins’ War Series, as it is preceded by the story of Jacquetta’s daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, in the White Queen. This means that The Lady of the Rivers ends at the point whereElizabethmeets her future husband, King Edward IV. Presumably the end of Jacquetta’s story features in the earlier title. I think I would have preferred to find out more about the rest of Jacquetta’s life in this book. I look forward to reading the accompanying “The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother” featuring a more historical take on the lives of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Jacquetta.
Score – 3/5