The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
The Lady of the Rivers (2011) begins with the capture of a young French maiden. She wears a man’s cap and breeches, and tells her captors that she is following the voices of angels. When our narrator, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, calls her Joan, it quickly becomes apparent that Gregory has opened her novel with the capture of the legendary Joan of Arc. Moments in history don’t come much more momentous than this one, and it marks the first trial Jacquetta must overcome, in era full of intrigue, alchemy and political suspense.
Dramatic as the opening is, therein lies its problem: Jacquetta merely plays witness to the greater moments of history, and her role of passive observer continues throughout the novel. Whilst Joan of Arc awaits trial in a fifteen-year-old Jacquetta’s household, she reads Joan’s cards. Jacquetta is descended from Melusina, the water goddess, and it is when she predicts Joan’s demise that we realise Jacquetta has the Sight and the scrying talents inherited from her mythical ancestor. Joan prompts Jacquetta to acknowledge her powers: she asks her if she too hears voices, and Jacquetta admits she hears a woman singing at night when members of her family have died.
Jacquetta’s inner struggle with these powers of hers — the danger of being associated with the supernatural is something she is always aware of — is actually one of the more intriguing aspects of The Lady of the Rivers. She marries the Duke of Bedford, who weds her not for love, but to imbue her powers as a descendant of the water goddess and use her Sight to try and defeat the French by discovering the Philosopher’s Stone. Later, a witch will teach Jacquetta herb lore, a skill she will eventually use to conceive a child.
Yet whilst Jacquetta has all the makings of a compelling protagonist, The Lady of the Rivers somehow falls short of what its opening promised. Jacquetta will always be the observer. Granted, this was the role that women generally took in the 15th century, but even within the confines of the place enforced on her by society, Jacquetta is hard to engage with. This period of history is rife with superstition, betrayal, witch hunts and rebellion, yet Jacquetta still manages to a feel a little bland. Perhaps it’s her lack of character development over the novel, or perhaps Gregory simply has her eye on setting up the story of Jacquetta’s daughter, Elizabeth, who will become the White Queen in the next book of the series.
That said, Philippa Gregory‘s style is incredibly readable; it’s no surprise she repeatedly tops bestseller lists. The prose is clean and unfussy, maybe even lacking in description. Short chapters ensure a zippy pace and, if you’re willing to forgive Jacquetta’s somewhat bland characterisation, there is a decent story in The Lady of the Rivers. The Tudors have long been a favourite subject among story tellers, and with the tumultuous court affairs and superstitious undercurrents, it’s easy to see why.
I know she’s a best seller but I don’t love her style of historical novel, so I’ll probably pass on this one. The Melusine is usually interesting but it doesn’t sound like there’s enough of it in this one to suit me.
Totally agreed, and think that’s the right move