There is a reason I eagerly anticipate Philippa Gregory’s next historical fiction novel and The Lady of the Rivers was well worth the wait. The Lady of the Rivers is actually a prequel in Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series, in which The White Queen and The Red Queen have already been published.
The Lady of the Rivers is a combination of legend and history of the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg. The legend concerns Jacquetta’s ancestry. She is reputedly a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, a legend Jacquetta embraces. It must be remembered the 15th century brimmed with superstitious beliefs and it is not far fetched Jacquetta accepted the legend as true.
On the other side of the coin, accusations of witchcraft abounded. Convictions were followed by burning at the stake. Jacquetta possesses the “second sight” or, as we would say, had visions. Her great-aunt practiced questionable (for the times) fortune-telling. She bequeaths her skills and implements to Jacquetta upon her death.
The novel opens in 1430 when Joan of Arc has been captured and is a prisoner of Jacquetta’s great-uncle. Joan of Arc’s subsequent horrific death remains with Jacquetta throughout her life as a reminder of what happens to those accused of witchcraft.
The Duke of Bedford, John of Lancaster (the 3rd son of King Henry IV of England), who more than merely dabbles in alchemy, seeks Jacquetta’s hand in marriage. While the marriage is of political advantage to the House of Lancaster, his desire is not the marriage bed but, rather, Jacquetta’s visions.
She remains a virgin and, while, treated kindly by the English regent of France, forms a major part of the Duke’s experiments and unending desire for Jacquetta to tell him the future. She is set for hours and, sometimes, days on end scrying for the Duke’s pleasure. While Jacquetta does experience some visions, these are limited and vague.
It is a lonely existence for Jacquetta, except for the presence of Richard Woodville, the Duke’s squire, who becomes her only friend. Jacquetta’s marriage to the Duke is not long-lived as he passes away a mere two years later.
Shortly after his death, Jacquetta acknowledges to herself her love for Richard Woodville, who has loved her from afar during the Duke’s lifetime. They become lovers and, upon her becoming pregnant with their first child (they would eventually have 14), marry secretly.
They then travel to the English court of King Henry VI to seek forgiveness for their marriage. As the highest ranking Duchess during her marriage to Bedford, Jacquetta is not permitted to marry without the King’s consent. Clemency comes at a great cost, a fine that exceeds her inheritance and Woodville’s capability as a squire to pay.
Thus, they seek to pay their debts and turn their fortunes around. Jacquetta does this through her friendship with Margaret of Beaufort, King Henry VI’s wife, while Woodville becomes an invaluable military commander to the King.
But all is not well with the King and Queen. Eight years pass before a child is born. The King has ill health and falls into a baffling coma for many months. He never regains his health, physically or mentally, and it falls to Queen Margaret to attempt to rule through her husband. Queen Margaret, is not a popular figure with the people.
To complicate matters, the King’s cousin, Richard, Duke of York, has intentions of grasping the crown of England for his own head. The famous Cousins’ War begins. Both Jacquetta and Richard are intensely loyal to the Queen and King and the House of Lancaster, but are aware the royal couple are susceptible to ill-advised counsellors.
The Lady of the Rivers is written from a first-person point of view, Jacquetta’s, and follows the marriage, a rare love match, and careers of Jacquetta and Richard. The historical novel ends in 1464 when their oldest daughter, Elizabeth, makes her own secret marriage with Richard, King of England, of the House of York, victor of the Cousins’ War. It is a beautiful story of a deep and enduring love and unfailing allegiance to their Queen and King despite serious misgivings.
Historical fiction reviewers are taught they should always find something negative to say about a novel or else the review comes across as a jacket cover. Honestly, I found no fault with this book and enjoyed it immensely.
Rating: 5/5 stars (exceptional)
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