The Lady of the Rivers is the third novel in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series, each book featuring a different lady who lived during the War of the Roses. The best thing about Philippa’s books is the fact that you don’t need to read them in any specific order. They are not written as a series but rather about the lives of individual women. This one focuses on Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a supposed descendant of the water goddess Melusina, first lady and close friend to Queen Margaret of Anjou, and mother of Elizabeth Woodville. The story follows her throughout her life, from her friendship with Joan of Arc, to her marriage to the English Duke of Bedford, uncle of Henry VI, and her being widowed at the age of 19 and choosing to marry for love.
Jacquetta is a woman quite neglected by history, one of the many women whose lives were almost lost in the depths of history because she wasn’t a man, and I believe this novel focuses on that quite strongly. There is a lot about how a woman should be subject to the men in her life and how she should never try to rule over men, that a wise woman can do so whilst maintaining an air of subordination. These were the issues that women faced in the 1400s and thus for this novel very relevant.
As well as this, there is a theme flowing throughout of magic and foresight as Jacquetta is said to have the gift of Melusina. Through her life the card1 ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ is mentioned and referenced to, from her teen years with Joan of Arcs to her adult life towards the end of the novel. The card is even featured on the inner cover. Not only does it foretell that the characters’ lives are never steady, that they can fall as high as they can rise, but it also presents the story itself as riding on the wheel of fortune.
I learnt something from reading The Lady of the Rivers, aside from who Jacquetta was, I always assumed that the War of the Roses was the Battle of Bosworth. I feel a little silly admitting it now because even when we were taught about the battle when I was 8, we were told that Lancaster and York held a lot of animosity for each other and with this battle and Henry marrying Richard’s wife, this was finally at an end so I don’t know why it never clicked but there you go. You’ll be surprised what a book can teach you sometimes, I guess.
The way in which The Lady of the Rivers is written gives it a sense of an ongoing story rather than a recounting of historical events. It is very easy to get caught up in the flow of events and the emotion Philippa invests in her characters is so fantastic that I almost cried a couple of times. My only problem with it is that she doesn’t put in very much detail and so I struggled to visualise the surroundings. I could picture vague images of medieval castles and English countryside but nothing really solid. There are times when the writing feels more like a sequence of events than a story and it feels a little disjointed. Much more is invested in the characters and their stories.
If you’re worried about reading this book because you haven’t read The White Queen or The Red Queen – don’t. I haven’t read those and this is a great read. In fact, The Lady of the Rivers would come before the first two in chronological order. It really doesn’t matter which order you read them in or if you read them all. Philippa has crafted a great story and I can’t wait until I get chance to read The Women of the Cousins’ War, a companion about the three women in these first three books.