Review: The Virgin Widow, Anne O’Brien

 I went straight to this book after finishing Trinity because I needed a real change of pace but felt like staying in the same place.  More unusually for me, this one is from the library.  I get very attached to books and don’t like to have to give them back once I’m done – while at school, I once borrowed the same book three times from a classmate and inwardly felt very peeved that I couldn’t keep it.  I have been wanting to have a look at this for a while though, I read The Scandalous Duchess a few months ago and loved it.  It is so good to find an author of historical fiction who is not Philippa Gregory.  I have been making a real effort to steer clear of anything written by her ever since I found myself half-way through The White Princess without having realised how I got there.  I always feel irritated about the way Gregory portrays all Tudors as these hunched, ugly, rude, violent, humourless traitors but far worse than that is the way she writes her women.  They simper and giggle and become these ridiculous empty-headed fools who make idiotic decisions.  Having grown up in Yorkshire, I have always had an interest in Anne Neville but I am never going to read The Kingmaker’s Daughter … so I was grateful to find The Virgin Widow instead.
For the uninitiated, Anne Neville was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, known as ‘The Kingmaker’ due to his battle prowess on the Yorkist side.  However, Warwick was not content with his rewards for having put Edward IV on the throne, particularly when Edward wedded himself to Elizabeth Woodville.  So Warwick married his eldest daughter Isabel to Edward’s brother George of Clarence, without asking Edward.  Then he rose up in rebellion and tried to put Clarence on the throne.  Twice.  The second time, Edward got really cross and the family had to flee to France and beg for mercy from … Margaret of Anjou.  Yes, that Margaret of Anjou, the wife of the man Warwick had deposed in the first place.  With little other choice, Warwick married his other daughter Anne to Margaret of Anjou’s son Edward Prince of Wales and took an army back to England to fight for the Lancastrians but he was killed as was the rest of his army.  But then Anne Neville ended up getting married to Edward IV’s other brother Richard of Gloucester and controversially became Queen for a short time before her own premature death at twenty-nine.  A very busy life.
As O’Brien observes herself, Anne Neville has become a very blank figure in history, we know nothing of her thoughts, feelings or opinions.  As the cover notes, she is a largely forgotten Queen of England.  Yet, she was married to the Lancastrian heir and then became wife and queen to a man of the House of York.  Like so many of the women of the Wars of the Roses, it was her curse to live through interesting times.  Apologists for Richard III would argue that theirs was a love match or worse that it was not and that his true love was his niece Elizabeth of York.  At this vantage point it is impossible to tell.  I still find it nauseating though when people ‘ship’ incest.  What is certain is that Anne and Richard grew up together and that he married her after she had come under severe pressure from her brother-in-law to enter a convent so that George and Isabel could claim the entire inheritance rather than sharing it with Anne.  It is tempting to imagine that there was a bond between the two.
It was interesting to read this directly after Trinity which focused on the battles at the expense of the characterisation.  The reader travels with Anne Neville, experiences as her and sees through her eyes.  It is immediately more engaging than Trinity despite its less ambitious scope.  The action opens in the cramped cabin of the ship fleeing to France, with Isabel Neville in desperate labour as Anne, the Countess of Warwick and Margery their nurse battle to save her life and that of her child.  Isabel Neville had one of the Famous Bad Childbirth Experiences that echo down the ages; she is soul sister to Margaret Beaufort who gave birth at twelve and never conceived again.  Isabel survived, her baby did not.  One might forgive her for her resentment of her father whose treachery necessitated their flight.
It was difficult to quite believe in the fourteen year-old Anne Neville’s love for Richard, not that she might believe herself in love but rather in the truth of the emotion itself.  The characters all seem a little too articulate for their age but then in a time when the concept of the teenager was centuries away, perhaps people did indeed have to grow up more quickly.  Certainly Anne’s childhood adoration for Richard is well-drawn as is his affection for her.  It would be hard to not feel sorry Anne losing the boy she had known all her life and ordered to marry the unknown and unfriendly Edward of Lancaster.
Soul brothers – Game of Thrones and The White Queen:
Joffrey Lannister and Edward of Lancaster
Indeed, if Anne Neville has been consigned to history as someone small and silent and sickly, Edward of Lancaster has become a kind of child-psychopath figure.  Basically, he is Joffrey Baratheon but real.  Famously, when his mother asked him what to do with two of Warwick’s captured knights, the then seven year-old prince replied that they should be beheaded.  Still, although it makes for a more interesting character, it is impossible to know much he really understood of what was going on around him.  He has become a monstrous figure – if he is the Lancastrian alternative, then the only way is York.  Like his Yorkist counterpart, there is doubt over his paternity and then more recently the spectre of an incestuous relationship with his mother Margaret of Anjou.  Even the BBC’s The White Queen had her feel his rear appreciatively before sending him off to consummate his marriage to Anne.  Of course, Anne O’Brien imagines things a little differently.
Nobody is quite certain whether the Neville/Lancaster alliance was ‘solemnised’, with the long history of enmity between the two families, it would not be surprising if there was a lack of trust between the two.  Philippa Gregory who loathes all Lancastrian naturally imagines it as a brutal rape.  Anne O’Brien instead portrays a scene that is in many ways just as humiliating; on the eve of Anne and Edward’s wedding day, Margaret of Anjou halts their public bedding and announces that the marriage will not be consummated since she may wish to annul it later.  With the young Anne naked and shivering under the covers, Margaret publicly tells her that she is unworthy to wed the prince.  From there on, things go from bad to worse.
Richard and Anne (c) BBC The White Queen
Anne Neville becomes a real heroine, caught in the heart of the battle but trying to stay loyal to her marriage vows while the cause crumbles around her.  From there the conflict becomes more domestic as Anne tries to find a place to be after the fall of Lancaster.  There are many stories told about how Anne left the Duke of Clarence’s household, some give her a great deal of agency over her fate, that she fled to work as a maidservant, that she proposed to Richard but then others that make her once again a mere pawn.  Did Richard simply abduct her?  In The Virgin Widow, it becomes a daring rescue in the manner of Cinderella, where Richard saves Anne from drudgery in her sister’s kitchens and then takes her to sanctuary.
Anne and Richard’s bond seems real and enduring, his love for her is understated but no less powerful.  O’Brien’s Richard is not a reckless man like his elder brothers but rather one of thought and consideration.  We can delight with Anne that she is finally united with him but it is hard to truly rejoice in the conclusion when we know about the dark cloud overhead.  The circumstances around Edward IV’s early death and his sons’ disappearance do credit to nobody but Richard III seems most likely to bear the blame.  For Anne there was the further humiliation of him publicly declaring to the court that they no longer went to bed together on the advice of her doctors.  Their only child died.  Richard was widely thought to be having an affair with his niece.  Anne died young.  So did Richard.  So ended the Plantagenets.  I enjoyed The Virgin Widow, I felt as if I could ultimately believe in its central love story and can see why it paused at the pinnacle of the couple’s happiness but alas that fate itself allowed no happy ending for Anne.  This novel certainly made me wish her one.
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Virgin Widow by Anne O'Brien
Published by HarperCollins UK on June 1st 2010
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Romance, Medieval, General
Pages: 624
ISBN: 9781408927953

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Virgin Widow, Anne O’Brien

  1. I can’t believe anyone could like this book.
    This is not historical fiction but historical romance.
    I understand that is a writer prerogative to invent details and story lines, I think this book implication are in poor taste. And I do feel the same about the two books I read from Philippa Gregory.
    I like history and I also enjoy reading historical fiction, but I think that once an author has to invent lurid stories of incest(or psychopathic murderers like in Gregory White Queen trilogy) is crossing the line between good and bad writing.

    1. Yeah – I don’t mind Anne O’Brien as much as Philippa Gregory. I will admit that her last few books haven’t really hit the mark for me but I definitely enjoyed a few of them. I think that I get more annoyed by Philippa Gregory because she pretends that she is a historian and that what she writes is true. What irritates me even more is that she has been repeatedly given TV platforms that seem to support this. She is a novelist, not a historian. And her hatred of all things Tudor is quite pathological. Like seriously bizarre. I think the problem with historical fiction is that it often veers into historical romance and has to twist around events from the past to fit the necessary romance template. It’s not particularly effective. In the case of the Virgin Widow, Anne Neville died at 28. She died in pain and it would appear that her marriage was not in particularly good terms. Her only child died very young. Her life was not much fun at all and her father made decisions for his own political benefit rather than her welfare or that of her sister. Their lives were not romantic. I remember I enjoyed this book (good few years now since I read it!) but I also know it has very little to do with Anne Neville’s real life. It was fiction and fairly easy reading at a point when that was what I needed so I don’t really think too much more about it than that.
      Thanks for commenting – hope you come back again 🙂

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