Anne O’Brien’s The Virgin Widow centers on Anne Neville, a historical figure I knew little about. The youngest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, Anne is born into a fantastically wealthy and privileged family.
Her father, credited as “The Kingmaker”, was instrumental in the deposition of Henry VI, elderly and suffering dementia, into the Tower of London as prisoner and the ascension of Edward III of York to England’s throne.
Anne grows up with a kind mother, a father she adores but often absent on embassies on behalf of Edward, and her older sister, Isabel, with whom she has a frequently acrimonious relationship.
Richard of York, Duke of Gloucester, Edward III’s youngest brother, arrives to reside at the Neville household when Anne was 8 years old, to learn combative skills and courtly manners necessary to his rank. He joins Francis Lovell, who is the Earl’s permanent ward. These young boys will become men intertwined throughout Anne’s life.
Anne and Isabel, are joint heiresses to their maternal grandparents’ vast accumulation of lands, castles and religious houses. As such, both daughters are cream of the crop prospective brides and highly marketable.
Full of her own importance and self-arrogance, Anne often clashes with Richard. She decides at 10 she will marry Richard, but not because of love. She wants him because she can as Lady Anne Neville.
The first inkling of decline of the Neville house arises with Warwick’s disagreement with Edward III’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Soon Woodvilles surround the King and Warwick’s advice is rejected. Warwick is still sent to broker alliances for Edward, but there is disagreement between them. Eventually, Warwick and the King are at odds.
When Warwick’s brother is invested as Archbishop of York and the expected King and Queen do not materialize for the ceremony, the Neville brothers consider this a slight and insult.
Then George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward III, unexpectedly visits the Neville household. Anne learns she is to marry Richard and Isabel is to be wed to Clarence as soon as papal dispensation is issued. In the meantime, both marriage are secrets. However, Clarence is loose-lipped and Edward immediately cancels the betrothals.
Richard is recalled to his brother’s side in London and Anne who, at 12 years, suddenly fell in love with him is devastated.
The Countess, without explanation to her daughters, retreats to Calais. The Earl does not accompany them. The Countess gives no explanations, but Anne senses tension. Weeks pass. The Earl arrives with Clarence, papal dispensation and the wedding is performed within days. In direct contravention of Edward’s command.
Warwick and Clarence plot treason and the next years of Anne’s life are spent despised as a penniless daughter of a traitor and exile. Forced into marriage with the Lancaster son of demented Henry VI and ambitious, cruel Margaret of Anjou, Anne is caught helplessly in political machinations.
Victim of her own family’s conspiracies, Anne is shattered by revelations of betrayals and her own untenable position. She never forgets Richard but, with her status as a Lancaster and traitor, is he lost to her forever?
Heiresses, who enjoyed luxury and seemingly held power of their own, are often romanticized. The Virgin Widow quickly dispels such notions with the brutal realities of political pawns in intrigues abandoned to suffer consequences of decisions not of their making.
I would especially like to mention the Readers Guide “A Conversation with Anne O’Brien”. Seldom do readers have such a great opportunity (15 pages!) to gain insight about an author, her/his motivations for penning a novel, thoughts on the subject matter and special historical interests.
MY RATING: 5/5 Stars
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