Title: Queen By Right
Author: Anne Easter Smith
Length: 494 pages (includes a brief author’s note, bibliography, and glossary)
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Queen By Right is a fictionalized account of the life of Cecily Neville, duchess of York—or at least of the first half of it. Along with her husband Richard and her sons, Cecily was a major figure in the fifteenth-century civil conflict now known as the Wars of the Roses. Though Cecily was born into a Lancastrian family, she became a York by marriage and was later the mother of two Yorkist kings [Edward IV and Richard III], the grandmother of a Tudor queen [Elizabeth of York], and thus an ancestor of nearly every English and Scottish monarch since 1461.
I was a little surprised when I realized that the novel was not going to cover Cecily’s entire life. Looking back, however, that was probably a wise choice. Cecily lived to be eighty, and the last thirty years of her life were nearly as eventful as the first fifty. She deals with more than her fair share of misery in the book as it is; I can’t blame Anne Easter Smith for wanting to give her a “happy ending” of sorts.
If The Summer Queen was a prime example of how not to write historical fiction, Queen By Right is a good example of how it should be written (or at least “historical romance”). Smith’s novel isn’t perfect, but it gets many things right. I can understand why some people might have been bothered by how much of it was fictionalized, but unlike some HF authors I could mention, Smith is honest and upfront about it in her author’s note. She neither completely twists her characters’ personalities nor claims that everything happened as she describes, and she admits that some elements—such as her inclusion of Jeanne D’Arc nd Cecily’s brief acquaintance with her in Rouen—are fictitious. (I know the bit with Jeanne bothered some people, but I found it touching.) This is an important thing to admit and acknowledge on the part of authors and readers alike: that they are writing or reading fiction, not history.
Cecily is nine in the beginning of the novel. Then, she is a daddy’s girl full of energy and sass in equal measure. She is also intelligent, curious, spoiled, and proud. Over the course of the next four hundred eighty-odd pages, Cecily grows into a woman. Some feel she comes off as too much of a Mary-Sue, but I disagree. Smith does a great job showing Cecily’s shortfalls as well as her virtues. As Cecily gets older and wiser, even she begins seeing the repercussions of things she said, did, and thought earlier in life and trying to learn from her mistakes. She grows into motherhood, too, and Smith handles the transition equally well. Cecily spends a great deal of the early novel with her mother Joan, and Joan’s influence becomes more obvious as Cecily’s children are born and grow up.
As I said before, Smith’s Cecily is likeable, but she has her flaws. She is beautiful, but also somewhat vain; proud and regal but sometimes haughty, jealous, and judgmental; clever, but often rash; a loving mother, but capable of being waspish, even cold.
I don’t know. Maybe I just liked Cecily too much from the beginning to mind if she was portrayed in a generally positive light.
But the strongest thing Cecily had going for her was being firmly rooted in her time period. Too often, characters in historical novels read like modern people who seem uncomfortable in their surroundings. But the pious, superstitious Cecily definitely belongs in the fifteenth century. She has a mind of her own and speaks it, too—but it is a distinctly medieval mind. Several scenes with her children illustrate this particularly well:
With baby Henry:
“I fear Henry’s body cannot tolerate this bee’s poison, and I have no remedy for that. I cannot lie to you, madame, ‘tis in God’s hands now,” she murmured, desolate. Once again, she was convinced that immersing him in the icy river might reduce the swelling, but she did not dare to suggest it. The duchess had never accused her of causing Joan’s death with the cold-water bath. Cecily had acknowledged that they could never be certain whether it was the fever, the cold bath, or the unicorn elixir that had been the culprit. …
Cecily sighed. “Aye, maybe if everyone prays for his recovery, God will listen.” (p. 212-13, emphasis mine)
And then again with the newborn George:
“He looks like an angel, does he not?” Cecily murmured. “Let us hope he remains thus—for the most part. Angels can be so dull.”
“Your grace!” Constance spluttered. “Have a care. There may be some listening who will take offense—those that frequent Satan’s realm, I mean.”
“Pish,” Cecily retorted. “As long as all was left open, as we instructed, there are no evil spirits here to put a curse on this child.” (p. 288, emphasis mine)
The secondary characters are fleshed out decently as well. Richard duke of York could have been reduced to Cecily’s Sweet Babboo—handsome, perfect, and chivalrous—but he is shown as being at least somewhat flawed. He could have been shown as a bit more ruthless in his ambition, however. Richard of York was probably an honorable man, but I also think he also believed strongly in his own claim to the throne. While the love story got a bit saccharine later in the book, it was done very well in the beginning. True, Cecily and Richard fell in love, but not “at first sight.” It was a relatively slow and gradual process, which I appreciated (especially since Cecily was nine when they met!)
The only real complaint I have is that some of the other interpersonal relationships end rather abruptly. For example, one of Cecily’s trusted attendants simply fades out of her life and is never mentioned again. A little consistency would have helped.
The prose is a pretty good, too. It tends to get a little repetitive and dry in places, too flowery in others. Despite sometimes flying through almost forty years, certain sections of the book drag. (I admit that some of this is on me. Since I have some WOTR background, I kept waiting to get to the “good/exciting part,” and once Cecily begins to have children, I was just waiting for my favorite York baby, Richard, to be born…and it was a long wait, since he was baby number twelve!) And fortunately, though there’s a lot of sex—sort of excused, I guess, by the the “love match” between Richard and Cecily and their subsequent parade of children—most of it is glossed over or merely suggested rather than explicitly described.
I’m sure some people have accused Smith of “info-dumping” through dialogue, but I liked how many historical events were spread through word-of-mouth from one character to the other. It spares readers from wading through actual “info-dumping” in which the characters have no part. Other future events are alluded to, such as when a very young Elizabeth Woodville visits the nursery in Rouen to see the newborn Edward of York, or this scene:
Five-month-old Dickon had taken a liking to his aunt immediately, and now, propped quietly upon her lap, was gazing earnestly at his mother across the hearth.
“How delicate he is,” Alice pronounced, allowing the child to take hold of her little finger. “Nay, Dickon, we do not suck on fingers,” she told him gently as he pulled it toward his mouth.
Cecily chuckled. “But I pray you, look at that chin. I have not seen such a determined chin on any of my other children. He will not let go of life without a fight, this one. Will you, sweeting,” she cooed at him. Dickon gurgled happily, making them both laugh. (p. 323, emphasis mine)
I thought it was a clever use of dramatic irony—Smith subtly acknowledging events that she and her readers know about (here, the Battle of Bosworth) though Cecily cannot yet.
Smith also did a good job handling the laundry list of names, many of which were the same. (The Tudors had a problem with men named Thomas; the late Plantagenets had it men called Richard.) Most of the men are called by their title other than Cecily’s husband and sons, and most of the women who share common names are similarly differentiated. There’s still some inevitable confusion, but her efforts are admirable nonetheless.
And while it may not be the most detailed or accurate portrait of medieval life, she also deserves credit for avoiding lengthy and potentially dull descriptions of fifteenth-century fashion and technology. She does this by including a glossary of unfamiliar terms and generally providing enough description to give readers the flavor of the time, if not an intricate portrait of it. Because the characters and events are Smith’s focus, this worked pretty well for me.
And lastly, Smith does a pretty even-handed job when it comes to portraying the Lancasters, albeit with some notable exceptions. That said, this is definitely a York-slanted story. If Margaret of Anjou is your boo, you might not be crazy about how she’s shown here. Henry VI is handled with a great deal of tact, however.
My advice to potential readers is this: go into Queen By Right knowing that this is a long book, knowing something about the historical events that surround it, and knowing that Cecily had thirteen children. If the length doesn’t deter you; if you’re even mildly interested in the Wars of the Roses or the people who were involved; and if you’re willing to slog through the rapid-fire births and childhoods of most of those children, then give this novel a try.
If you can’t deal with Smith’s imagined passages and occasional mystical religious imagery—which she, unlike many authors, freely admits are made of whole cloth—you should probably also skip it.
I would love to see a follow-up about the last years of Cecily’s life—how she handled Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (not as graciously as she could have, according to history, though with hindsight she seems to have had the measure of it); how she dealt with the deaths of her three remaining sons; how she viewed Richard taking the throne after Edward’s death…
But perhaps that’s for another author to write, or maybe I should hurry up and finally read The Sunne in Splendour.
Not really part of the review, but here are some bonus scenes featuring my favorite York baby in all his adorableness:
Cecily smiled, not wanting to dampen her new-found merriment. She reached out her arms to Dickon and cuddled him against her breast. Bessie was there in a trice, tickling the baby and making him laugh.
[L]ittle Dickon toddled up to Ned’s side and took his hand at Richard’s entrance, his face a picture of delight. “Papa,” he babbled repeatedly, pointing at Richard and tugging at Ned. “Mama, Papa.”
Richard’s face softened into a smile, and he picked up is youngest son and tossed him in the air. “Aye, Dickon, your father and mother are here. We will always be here for you.”
The reunion would have been joyful enough if Edward alone had returned to her, but he had brought a surprise.
“George! Dickon!” Meg had been the first to cry out upon seeing the two boys enter the great hall. Cecily could not have described the joy she felt when Dickon ran headlong into her arms.