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Old 25th Apr 2012, 15:02   #1
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Default Anne O'Brien: The Virgin Widow

So Anne O’Brien, who “taught history in the East Riding” and now lives on the Welsh Marches, thought she would write a book about a forgotten queen – there are many of these in English history. She chose Richard III’s queen, Anne Neville, who was daughter to great Warwick the Kingmaker and, briefly, unhappy pawn and bride to Henry VI’s son, Edward. She made three decisions that affect the wholesome outcome of her endeavour: she began the book with a supposedly critical scene in Anne’s mid-teens, then returns to Anne’s young childhood and works her life through until ….well, until the next decision, which is a curious one.

Anne Neville died young, on March 16th 1485, aged only 28; her only child was born sometime during 1473 when she was 17, and it is with this event that O’Brien chooses to close her book. Anne’s story is over, apparently, now that she has given birth to young Edward of Middleham, a child who will not see his 11th birthday; her value as Richard’s “childhood sweetheart”, played for all its historical-romance worth here, is given a full-stop here, curiously, in the very middle of her life. In real life, she lives through the death of her sister (in possible suspicious circumstances), her brother-in-law’s execution, and the nightmare of Richard’s Protectorate and accession to the throne in 1483. She welcomes his two illegitimate children into her son’s nursery and later on, her nephew. As parents, their terrible grief at their son’s sudden death is movingly reported, as is some mention of ‘similar clothing’ worn at her final Christmas by both Anne and Princess Elizabeth (sister of the disinherited Princes): all of this is usually rich food for historical novelists, whatever their opinion of Anne’s more famous husband.

O’Brien’s third choice is an invention, and not a good one. It is to fictionalise the death of Henry VI’s son (Edward of Lancaster), and attribute his death to the hands of Richard Duke of Gloucester. Tudor propaganda-history writing seventy years after the events of the Battle of Tewkesbury, lays Edward of Lancaster’s demise at Richard’s hands, although no contemporary writer mentions it, and no credible historian today connects Richard with this death. Edward of Lancaster was slain either in the field (possibly by George of Clarence) or by a servant of the king’s after the battle finished. Yet O’Brien constructs a purely invented scene within Tewkesbury Abbey where Richard is forced to defend his brother the King and strike a death-blow to the murderous intent of Edward of Lancaster. For Anne’s eye-witness of all this (and inaccurate accounts of the bloodshed inside the Abbey, and rape and pillage without), she and a servant hike the mile and a half from Payne’s Place in Bushley to the town centre.

For a 600-page book the characters are strangely unfleshed-out, even Anne’s father Warwick who so disastrously strives to uphold his power by negotiating with his worst enemy, Margaret of Anjou. O’Brien enrichens the plot here by implying an incestuous relationship between Margaret and her son Edward, a power-play which would leave Anne’s marriage to Edward unconsummated. O’Brien enjoys developing the true ‘Cinderella’ story of Anne Neville being hidden as a serving maid in a London tavern (either to keep her away from Richard of Gloucester who intended to marry her and claim her half of the Beauchamp/Despenser inheritance, or to keep her safe from her brother-in-law George who would have immured her in a convent and claimed both halves of the inheritance for himself).

The Bookseller claims this is “better than Philippa Gregory” – well, only in the sense that this book doesn’t take quite as many appalling liberties with language and character – but it is written-by-numbers romantic historical fiction, with a curious start and end point and a completely new C21st libelling of Richard of Gloucester’s record for historians of all persuasions to counter.

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