Cecily by Annie Garthwaite was a gradual falling-in-love process for me as I became so immersed in the story and fell in fascination with the character of Cecily Neville. What a wonderful fictionalised account of the Duchess of York it is. Mother of two kings, equal partner to her husband Richard, mother, politician, diplomat, kingmaker.
I started knowing nothing more of her than that she was mother to both Edward IV and Richard III. Garthwaite paces herself in the telling of Cecily’s story and there were times when the [necessary] exposition of England’s 15th century politics and the seemingly endless battles and arguments of the Wars of the Roses, seemed to pause the narrative. But as the pages turn, the tension builds as you wonder how the family will survive. The politics and family connections of the time were intricately linked and can be confusing, so the exposition is a necessary part of the novel.
Cecily is a gift of a character who was somehow overlooked in the history books, as Garthwaite explains in her afterword, ‘Writing Cecily’. “Cecily lived through eighty years of tumultuous history, never far from the beating heart of power. She mothered kings, created a dynasty, brought her family through civil war…. Last woman standing.”
This does not feel like a debut novel. Cecily comes alive off the page and it’s clear that Garthwaite lived and breathed in Cecily’s shoes. She creates a modern woman, a strong woman in a man’s world which, given Cecily’s history, she must have been to survive. This is an epic story starting in 1431 as the teenage Cecily watches as Joan of Arc burns at the stake, ending with the coronation of her eldest son as King Edward IV. On the way, family alliances are sundered, friends become traitors, battles are won and lost and Cecily gives birth to thirteen children. Through it all, she believes her husband has a stronger claim to the throne than the current king, Henry VI. The tension between husband and wife ebbs and flows throughout the years as Cecily encourages and pushes Richard to claim his rightful place.
There are so many twists, betrayals, secrets and threats that I found myself just reading one more page, one more chapter, even as my eyes closed late at night. I did not want this book to end.
And what a stunning cover!
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