Before reading this book I was already aware that Cecily Neville - granddaughter of John of Gaunt and the mistress who subsequently became his wife, Katherine Swynford - was feisty enough to face down her enemies at the gates of Ludlow Castle, with her small children at her side. But I knew little else, except that she was wife to Richard, Duke of York, and mother to three famous (or infamous) sons: Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard III.
Annie Garthwaite's stunning new historical novel, CECILY, admirably fills the gaps, providing a vividly female perspective on the Wars of the Roses and showing how a determined woman could operate in a man's world. Medieval women, we learn, especially those of the aristocracy, could be responsible for huge households and vast estates - "enterprises similar in complexity and size to mid-sized FTSE companies". As if that weren't enough, at the same time as supporting their husband's political career, they were expected to breed. Failure at which negated all else. Like some twenty-first century women, Annie Garthwaite argues, they "were expected to do it all".
I devoured this book, influenced by the fact that I have been a ricardian in sympathy since reading Josephine Tey's book The Daughter of Time in my teens. Not only do my bookshelves heave with tomes about the Plantaganets, but my current historical novel has an 18th century historian who writes about them.
Annie Garthwaite admits that the Wars of the Roses have also been a fixation of hers since being inspired by her secondary school history master. Her debut novel has been long in gestation, and shows it, causing Cecily Neville to leap from the page as a real woman: flawed yet ambitious. Duplicitous, yet vulnerable. Strong, yet capable of tenderness. If you care about the past and appreciate a brilliant eye for historical detail, this book will not disappoint. In fact, I am convinced that Annie Garthwaite is going to give Hilary Mantel a run for her money.
I think Annie herself deserves the last word:
"What can I say? I love 15th century history. No apologies, no excuses. The 100 Years War, the Wars of the Roses. All of that.
"It's not that I'm a big fan of blood and battles. Personally I can do without that sort of thing. No - it's the women who interest me. How they negotiated their way in the world. How they managed - some of them at least, probably more than you'd think - to wield power and influence at a time when men seemed to hold most of the cards. And how others, simply, did not.
"For me, the stand out character of the 15th century has always been Cecily Neville. She experienced power in both directions: wielding it and having it wielded against her. She survived eighty years of tumultuous history, mothered kings, created a dynasty and brought her family through civil war. She met victory and defeat in equal measure and, in face of all, lived on. Last women standing, you might say."