REVIEW of The Virgin Widow, by Anne O’Brien

“This was my favorite read of the entire year.”

I saw one reader comment just that about The Virgin Widow, at that time the next title in my to-read pile. High praise indeed, thought I, with a little bit of cynicism–slogging through The Other Boleyn Girl tends to jade your perspective on life. My one hope was that Anne O’Brien’s book would be satisfactory enough to justify a hiatus in the Marcus Didius Falco series. After all, I do have three more Lindsey Davis books waiting on the shelf, and I know those ones are going to be plums….

The Virgin Widow is the story of Anne Neville, the daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, and is set during the tumultuous and confusing Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. The story picks up after Warwick’s abortive plot to place George, the Duke of Clarence, on the throne, and shows the Earl and his family fleeing to France to escape the wrath of the York king, Edward IV. Anne witnesses her sister Isabel (George’s wife) give birth to a stillborn child aboard ship and finds herself plunged into the uncomfortable world of adulthood.

Once in France, Anne becomes a pawn in her father’s hands as he attempts to regain power. Since George is no longer useful, Warwick looks to the house of Lancaster and realigns himself with the exiled Margaret of Anjou (whom he once ousted from the English throne along with her husband Henry VI). He prepares to organize an invasion of England in Margaret’s name and negotiates a marriage between Anne and Margaret’s daughter Edward. At this time Anne is just fourteen years old. In her early years she had been betrothed to the York king’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. O’Brien uses flashbacks and Anne’s own thoughts to paint a picture of the young girl growing attached to Richard and forced to give up her love for him when her father switches sides by supporting George’s rebellion. With all hopes of an alliance with Richard dashed, Anne must reconcile herself to marriage with the handsome but cruel Edward. The marriage turns out to be even worse than expected. Margaret of Anjou forbids the couple to consummate the union so that she can have it annulled later on when it no longer serves her purpose. Despised by her mother-in-law and mistreated by her volatile husband, Anne harbors romantic dreams of Richard, the man she could not have.

At this point in the book I was pretty unhappy with the portrayal of the main characters. Richard (as painted by Anne) was all goodness, light, unicorns, and fairies–nothing like the devious Crookback of Shakespeare’s plays. Margaret was a one-dimensional villainess. To top things off, O’Brien threw in an incestuous relationship (without any historical basis) between Edward of Lancaster and his mother–just in case the reader didn’t already understand that these people are evil! I was starting to be as put off with the liberties taken in this book as I was by the plot line of The Other Boleyn Girl.

But when Anne gets a chance to return to England, the story takes a turn for the better. Travelling in Margaret’s entourage, she learns the bittersweet news that her husband has been killed–by Richard’s hand. With her father dead as well–and attainted as a traitor–Anne must make her own peace with the York king if she wants to survive. Anne’s interest in Richard is tempered by the realization that he can be a cold-blooded killer, and also by the fact that he seems to have lost interest in her. Warwick’s estates are forfeit, but Anne is still an heiress in her own right, thanks to the inheritance she will receive through her mother. The king assigns her to the care of her sister Isabel and the newly forgiven George, and she hopes to find a little peace now that the war and her marriage are over.

But Richard’s cryptic message–“Do not let them force you to join a covent!”–warns Anne that things are not so simple. If Anne should take the veil, Isabel will receive all of her mother’s lands. Her mercenary guardians are not above using force to keep Anne from her inheritance. There is only one man in England powerful enough to take on the Duke of Clarence–and Anne is not even sure if she still loves him enough to take the “way out” that he offers….

Anne O’Brien admits in her Author’s Notes that she went into this novel intending to romanticize the relationship between Anne Neville and Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Is there any evidence of personal affection between Anne and Richard? Although there is no evidence of an attraction between them during their upbringing at Middleham or afterward, when their marriage was mooted, equally there was no evidence that it did not exist. It was my choice to make it more than a dynastic marriage and to write The Virgin Widow as a romance.

This is a bold decision to make, and a little implausible if one knows the later history of the couple that is not included in the book. After Richard becomes king, it is rumored that he tried to poison his wife Anne so that he could marry his brother’s daughter and consolidate power. Not exactly the happily ever after the book offers. Of course, those rumors could all be part of the Tudor propaganda put out by Henry VII. It’s hard to say for certain.

But despite the historical implausibility of the romance, the romance in The Virgin Widow was very well done in a literary sense. I liked it. I was rooting for them. I especially enjoyed the complexity that O’Brien weaves into Richard’s character in the second half of the novel as Anne comes to realize that he is no longer the innocent boy she once knew. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, this is not the book for you. But if you’re looking for romance with a historical setting, you might well consider this to be your “favorite read of the year.”

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