For as long as men have been writing history, important women have been lost from its pages. Restoring all of them would be an impossible, lifetimes-consuming feat, but that doesn’t mean some historians can’t try. Building on the success of Philippa Gregory’s novels set during the Wars of the Roses (which she calls “The Cousins’ War”), she and two historians have written a book spotlighting three of the most important women during the war – The Duchess, Jacquetta, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen, and Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, The Queen’s Mother.
While reading this review, it’s probably worth keeping in mind that I know a lot about the Wars of the Roses, even counting what I’ve forgotten since I actually finished studying it intensively, and have read many many books and articles on the subject, both popular and academic history. I have also been trained to write history myself. My experience may not match yours.
I love the idea of The Women of the Cousins’ War in theory, but I’m ever so wary of it in actual historical practice. Unfortunately, this book actually justified my wariness. The introduction, written by Gregory, is very appealing. Starting off first with the difference, in her mind, between history and historical fiction, and followed up by why she chooses to write fiction, was actually a fascinating glimpse into her head. I didn’t agree with everything she said about the writing of history itself, but I appreciated such a bold introduction that really argued her case. It had me looking forward to the book.
At that point, unfortunately, I began to be disappointed. None of the essays use footnotes OR endnotes, which left me wondering where on earth they’d actually got their information from. There is a list of sources and a messy list of acknowledgements and quotes at the end of each, but this is frustrating to wade through when looking for the source of any quote. Without knowing where each got information from, I hesitated to trust anything I was reading.
It didn’t help that it started off with Gregory’s essay about Jacquetta, the Duchess of Bedford who married a lower-class Woodville seemingly out of love and gave birth to the future queen of England, Elizabeth Woodville. To be perfectly fair to Gregory, she has very, very little to work with, but this is one of the fundamental flaws in this sort of “restoration” of some historical women. There just isn’t much there. It’s incredibly difficult to prise out anything about Jacquetta herself besides speculation. Gregory does a decent job of that speculating, but since I didn’t know where any particular bit of information came from, whether it was an original source or not, I had no way to judge for myself what I thought about what she was saying. This particular bit reads, as you would imagine, as a factual tale about the more recorded people in Jacquetta’s life without much genuine insight into who she actually was.
I also was frustrated by the fact that there is no engagement with the sources, particularly the primary sources. Instead of hearing “some say”, I want to know who said it and what their motivation was. I wanted this book to further historical study, to make some sort of impact, not to just flatly tell me what happened. Gregory says she consulted the original sources, but aside from a few notes in the end, they don’t feature.
The second essay didn’t improve much on the situation. Enough is known about Elizabeth Woodville to actually make for an interesting biography, and some biographies have been already written about her, including one by this particular author. She also features heavily in other books about this subject, naturally. The essay was fair, and does include more information about the sources, and would be appropriate for someone who knows almost nothing about the subject. For me, it didn’t help that this essay was the least well-written and I found it very difficult to keep my attention on the page, which is probably why I have little to say either way about it.
The last essay, however, was excellent. Michael Jones very obviously knows his subject, knows his sources, and is a wonderful writer. He rescues the whole book by actually backing up his speculation, thinking about where his information comes from, and considering Margaret’s family history as well as the present. There still aren’t any actual notes, but he amazingly separates the primary sources from the books in his source list (which neither of the others do) and makes it relatively easy to figure out what came from where, particularly since he’s actually engaging with the historical record.
In fact, I feel like the third essay justifies my criticisms of the other two, because it did a whole lot more of everything I wanted without unnecessary length and certainly without becoming as dry as academic history can be. Yes, the book is intended to familiarize readers with these women, not as an academic study for other historians, but certainly they can do so while also writing worthy history. He provided a much fuller, more comprehensive picture of Margaret herself, backed up by everything he knows, and had me eager to read his full-length book on the subject.
I don’t think I would recommend this book for anyone who has some knowledge of the period, as they’ll know most of what’s in it, but for newcomers and those who are looking for more information and a “popular” history this would suit. If you see it in your library and enjoy Philippa Gregory’s books, I’d certainly recommend you read at least the introduction, as I feel it’s really added to my understanding of the way she writes and considers historical fiction.
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