Like all of us, I suppose, I was prepared to wave goodbye to a lacklustre summer, one of rather too much cold wet weather and not enough certainty about how to stay safe from the predations of Covid. Having seen the first glimpses of the autumn now upon us — shortages of food, fuel, and apparently even turkeys and Christmas toys, plus inflation and rising prices as far as the eye can see —I rather wish I’d stayed in summer.
However, here we are in late September, so no turning back. I’ve been busy writing a short story for a Roman anthology to be published before Christmas. It still needs a bit of a polish, and some research in Wroxeter Roman Town, booked for next week. That in itself is quite exciting for me and my dearest First Reader, as it will be our first night away from home since we ventured into Somerset in June to record my YouTube series, The Governor’s Man by Jacquie Rogers. (The whole series is now streaming, all twelve episodes.) More on that story anon.
I haven’t recently shared any book reviews here. But now I make up for my lack with a real humdinger: Cecily, by Annie Garthwaite. a whopper of a five-star treat, destined IMHO to be rated one of the best historical novels of the decade.
Here’s my review:
Cecily, by Annie Garthwaite, published by Penguin July 2021
I loved this book so much, it’s difficult to know where to start my review:
To begin with, the writing is simply beautiful. Every sentence is polished like a gem. In limpid prose Annie Garthwaite navigates for us the complex and conflicted world of the Wars of the Roses, with its cross-cutting alliances and family relationships at deadly odds. Cecily Neville was embroiled in political menace – and often physical danger – from her birth, but survived with remarkable success to reach advanced old age. Despite losing her husband, Richard of York, and all her sons, she lived to see her granddaughter Elizabeth become queen of England and the mother of the future Henry VIII. Thus Cecily is the progenitrix of all subsequent English monarchs, and thoroughly deserves our attention.
A particular strength of this book are the characterisations: the courage, at times ruthlessness, of Cecily; the depiction of her husband Richard’s nobility and terrible death; their passionate marriage; a myriad of beautifully delineated supporting characters, especially her brother Salisbury, her nephew Warwick, and the intransigent Queen Marguerite. Annie explains in her Author’s Notes that her research of Cecily Neville revealed a woman who knew “how to operate as a woman in a man’s world”, and that certainly becomes the leitmotif of the story.
For writers of historical fiction, producing and maintaining suspense when we all know what is to happen can be challenging indeed. Annie Garthwaite overcomes this hurdle with sublime affect. Her writing is so immersive that the twists and turns of Cecily’s eventful life produce suspense on every page. The final section was devastatingly taut with tension – even though, having studied the period, I knew what would happen! The book ends on a high note for Cecily, as her splendid golden son Edward IV triumphs. I wonder whether the author intends to show us the rest of Cecily’s long life, with all its disaster and ultimate triumph? I do hope so.
I can’t remember the last time a historical novel of this period captured my imagination so wholly. Congratulations to Annie Garthwaite on a remarkable achievement.