Tuesday, September 13, 2011

REVIEW: The Women of the Cousins War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, and Michael Jones

 In The Women of the Cousins War: The Duchess, The Queen, and the King's Mother, Philippa Gregory and historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones endeavor to give readers some insight into the leading ladies in the War of the Roses (aka The Cousins War). 

The book opens with a 47 page introduction addressing why women are often in the background or not represented at all in historical records.  The answer to this is quite simple: medieval England was a man's world baby! The ladies of those noble households were supposed to be behind the scenes with bun after successive bun in the oven supervising the kitchen staff as they baketh the noble lord his brownies.  Okay, so this may be a slight exaggeration.  As this book shows, women were present at important events in this time period (and throughout history).  Its just the focus was on men and the histories were written by men so it kind of makes sense that women were not given their due.  She also goes on to explain what history is, what fiction is, and the difference and similarities between the approaches in writing straight history and historical fiction.

Finally we move on to the subjects of the book and kicking off these short histories is Gregory herself tackling the Duchess-Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Elizabeth Woodville.  Gregory is careful to note that not a lot is written in the history books about Jacquetta and therefore a lot of what she covers in this section is what may have happened and when Jacquetta was very likely present for certain historical events.  In this somewhat slowly paced section, we are taken through both of Jacquetta's marriages and the birth of her 16 children, 12 of which survived to adulthood.  This section read more as a history of the happenings at the time with mentions of when Jacquetta may have been present or what her role might have been instead of the focus being solely on Jacquetta herself.

Next up was David Baldwin with his essay on Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to Edward IV.  I have always been fascinated with this widowed mother of two boys who had a tremendous change in fortunes and became queen of England.  In many accounts this lady gets a bad rap as a vain and greedy social climber whose main objective is to place her numerous family members in influential positions.  While she did elevate many of her relations, Baldwin shows Elizabeth Woodville as both beautiful and educated-a woman who valued her books! I really enjoyed this section as it made me look at her in a different and more positive light.

Last up was Michael Jones with his history of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.  Of these ladies Margaret is the one I knew the least about so this would have to be the most informative section for me.  This lady did not have an easy time of things.  Jones discusses Margaret's family history including the actions of her father which cast a shadow over the family, her marriages, the political upheaval she endured, and finally her years of patience in regards to her ambitions for her son paying off when he ascends the throne. 

Overall, I enjoyed the brief histories of these women provided here.  This is Gregory's first whack at non-fiction and I have to say it was a smart move to call in other historians to give their perspectives.  I thought all sections were balanced and well written, although I thought the nearly 50 page introduction was overkill and a bit tedious at times.  I think this is a great starting point for anyone wanting to read historical fiction about the war of the roses and is curious to know the real history involved.  This is also a great book to have when reading Gregory's Cousins War books starting with The White Queen (about Elizabeth Woodville), The Red Queen (about Margaret Beaufort), and The Lady of the Rivers (about Jacquetta of Luxembourg).  I read The White Queen when it came out, just finished reading The Red Queen, and am starting The Lady of the Rivers.  I wish this book had come out first so I could have used it for reference when reading all three, especially because it includes family trees for all.  I have read several books about the war of the roses and I still get the family histories confused!  I definitely recommend this as a good starting point for anyone wanting to read about the women of this period.  I plan to dig up more to read on all three of these fascinating ladies.

 I received this book from Simon & Schuster via Galley Grab.  These are my honest thoughts on the book.