Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

If history class had been this interesting, I probably would have paid more attention.
When my son was about a year and a half old (and my ex-husband was still my husband), I decided it was time to get a part time job because I desperately needed consistent time away from the house and playing "Mommy".  I managed to get hired at one of the major national booksellers, though I worked primarily in the music section.  Nevertheless, this afforded me the opportunity to spend many hours a week in the company of my first love - books.  I quickly discovered that my favorite genre du jour was "historical fiction".  My son will be turning six in March, and this is still my preferred genre.

Most people will recognize the author Philippa Gregory from her novel The Other Boleyn Girl (which is INFINITELY better than the movie that was rather loosely based on this story), but she has written a veritable library of historical fiction novels that follow the leading ladies of British history as far back as the Middle Ages.

The Lady of the Rivers tells us the story of Jacquetta Woodville, also known as Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a fixture at the court of King Henry IV due to her royal bloodline and very close friendship with Henry's wife, Margaret. As with Gregory's other novels, it's easy to find yourself transported to another time and place where courtly intrigues and plans for war are a daily occurrence.  Jacquetta's time covers the end of The Hundred Year's War and the beginning of The War of the Roses. 

Jacquetta is an incredibly fascinating character, and it's hard to believe at times that many of the events described in the novel are based in fact and not the product of a fertile and rather romantic imagination.  After an odd first marriage to John, 1st Duke of Bedford, she was summoned to the royal court in London by King Henry VI.  Her escort on this trip was Richard Woodville, the late duke's chamberlain.  During their travels, the two fell madly in love and married in secret before their arrival in London.  Marriage among the nobles without permission of the king was simply not done, but Jacquetta and Richard were able to return to the king's good graces by paying a fine of 1000 pounds.

She bore 16 children during her marriage to Richard before her death at age 57.  Nuff said.

One of the most fascinating, and true, aspects of the story is the legend of Melusina.  Jacquetta's bloodline is reported to be directly descended from this water goddess, which manifests in psychic powers of premonition and visions through scrying, as well as the odd bit of magic.  As you can imagine, this resulted in more than one accusation of witchcraft during a time period that was less than tolerant of multiple religious views.  Not to mention what seems upon researching a patriarchal fear of any kind of power held by a woman.  This does make for a nice seasoning to an already fascinating story.

The dialogue is, quite naturally, a product of fiction and speculation though the actual historical events are illustrated and brought to a new light for the current generations.  Not only is the story entertaining, but it is also educational.  Not to say that the author doesn't take poetic license with some of the sequencing, but it does give the reader a much greater understanding of England's long and rather bloody history. 

For me, I've noticed that what this type of novel does is make me curious about the true history that inspired the novel, and I will spend hours researching on Wikipedia to find out what really happened.  Like I said, if only history class had been this interesting! 

I definitely recommend this book, as well as all the others by Philippa Gregory.  The exception is The Wildeacre Series, which has not found its way onto my bookshelves just yet.

Interesting bit of trivia: Through her daughter, Queen Elizabeth, Jacquetta was the maternal grandmother of Elizabeth of York, Queen of Henry VII. As such, she is an ancestress of all subsequent English and British monarchs, including Elizabeth II, and seven other present-day European monarchs. - from Wikipedia

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