In order to celebrate the paperback release of this memorable book yesterday, here is my review!
Cecily by Annie Garthwaite
This powerful and amazing historical novel lists the characteristics of its main character on the cover – Wife, Mother, Politician, Traitor, Survivor, Fighter. The main story begins in 1431, when royal and aristocratic women were supposed to be used as political pawns in marriage and produce male children for inheritance and warriors. This however is the beginning of the period of English history known as The Wars of the Roses when a weak king was influenced and used by certain people to create a chaotic political system.
Cecily was always going to be an influential woman, but her marriage to a man close to the throne meant that her choices, her love for her husband and political acumen meant that she was forced to use every weapon to survive. Her husband, Richard Plantagenet, is heir to the throne for much of the time cover ed in this novel, and in the 1400s that is a dangerous place to be. As he must go into battle to preserve his interests and very freedom, she must use her family connections and political skills to work behind the scenes to preserve his interests and those of her children. This is an intense, well written of a portrait of a woman who was central to the politics of a turbulent time who has often been sidelined in favour of the men and women who appeared later in the period, but whose long life and determination transformed the harsh realities of the time. Even those with little of no knowledge of a time before the much-vaunted Tudors will relish the story of a woman who fought to make a difference, and succeeded in so many ways. It is a terrific story, well told, and I thoroughly recommend it.
The book begins with the public death of Joan of Arc. It is observed by the young Cecily, who is aware of the implications; the young Henry VI, controlled and influenced by two men set to make him king of both England and France, has come closer to gaining control of a country as huge and divided as France. She knows the cost that trying to maintain hold of the country is financial and military, and that her husband will be involved in it. She also witnesses the nature of the treatment of women who try to influence events from whatever motivation. Cecily was given to Richard in marriage at a young age, she was rich in relatives and financial holdings, he was the son of a man labelled traitor but who was still close to the throne. She knows that it will be her role to produce children and see them through childhood in a world of high risk for infants, she also knows that she must support her husband in his allocated tasks. That is not as easy as it may seen at the beginning; there are those who are jealous of Richard’s position and will actively work against him to influence the weak king against his interests. There are conspiracies to have him declared traitor and imprisoned, even though he has expended his resources to try and hold significant portions of France. Cecily is forced to use her links to women and men who can be influenced into at least temporary alliances to save not only their estates but their very lives.
This book is obviously the product of much research and a deep understanding of the period, which contributes to and never interrupts the narrative. The dialogue is forceful and completely understandable to twenty first century readers, and together with the descriptions conveys the atmosphere of both personal emotions and harsh realities of life. Cecily herself is vividly presented as a warrior in her thoughtful use of dress and situations, letter writing and contact with both the women and men who may be influential. While she has a deep love for her husband and her children, she knows the cost of her marriage and the risks of bearing children and the inevitable losses to disease and later potentially battle. This is an incredible book of a remarkable woman who is presented as a significant figure in a challenging time, and one which is difficult to put down.