Friday, April 18, 2014

Daughter of York, by Anne Easter Smith

The other day, I was wandering around my apartment, looking for my next read.  When you have as many books as I do, it’s like channel surfing through a mega-sized cable package; am I interested in learning about camp followers through history? do I want to read about a woman in 19th century France? or is it an Brontë kind of day?  It’s like is flicking through 300+ channels and saying “there’s nothing on.”  But then I remembered a set of books by Anne Easter Smith about the English War of the Roses, and I decided that my next read would be Daughter of York, about Margaret, King Edward IV’s sister.

Easter Smith’s wheelhouse is telling the stories of women in 15th century England.  The first book of hers that I read was A Rose for the Crown, about Richard III’s mistress.  So far, the main theme that emerges from Easter Smith’s writings for me has been that women had a shit time of it.  In this case, Margaret is sold (oh, I’m sorry, married) to a foreign ruler (Charles of Burgundy), regardless of the fact that she’s fallen in love with an English lord of her brother’s court.  Now, as a historian, I get it – women in powerful families were regularly used to secure the family’s advancement.  This was particularly true of women from ruling houses, whose marriages were designed to secure trading rights, or good relations, or a cessation of hostilities or war.  But when you approach history through Easter Smith’s humanizing stories, it becomes really hard to be okay with the practice.

Daughter of York, in particular, makes it hard to be tolerant of this (mainly) historical practice, and I think that’s because of how engaging and relatable Easter Smith wrote Margaret, and particularly her love for Sir Anthony Woodville.  It was heartbreaking to read the passages where Anthony had to escort the woman he loved to her wedding, or Margaret’s experience with marital rape, or their multiple partings when their paths crossed throughout their lives.  Of course, all of these events are Easter Smith’s fictionalized account of a life lived (backed, where possible, with historical fact of travel and locations), but it’s a sign of a skilled author that she’s able to make her reader forget that her main character was a real person with a completely unknowable personal experience – Easter Smith paints a picture that I’m willing and able to buy as complete fact.  

What I didn’t like about this book, and Easter Smith acknowledges the problem in her author’s note, is that the book ends on a positive note.  I’ll try to avoid specific spoilers, but I read the last page and though to myself that all was right in the world and there was some justice in the universe.  Then you turn the page to the author’s note with the historical (not fictionalized) account of what happens next and my jaw dropped.  There was no happily ever after for Margaret; in fact, there were some shit times coming her way.  Easter Smith acknowledges that there were more universal injustices coming for her protagonist, but didn’t give a great explanation of why she chose the ending she did.  I suppose, in a setting where the author gets to choose how her story ends, giving her characters a happy ending is the ideal, but for me, it was as if the author’s note created a schism, and suddenly there was the fictional Margaret and the real world Margaret – up to that point, there was just the real world Margaret.  So, I guess as a historian I should thank Easter Smith for brining me back to reality, but the reader in my really wasn’t happy.  But then again, a hats off to Easter Smith for creating that dynamic to begin with.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a great book for fans of historical fiction, and for fans of fictionalized biographies, so I’d recommend it.  Daughter of York is a clearly well researched work, with engaging characters, and a fast moving plot, and it’s a great way to spend your time.  Easter Smith’s theme of focusing her writing on the experiences of women close to power is an interesting one, and I’ll be reading her other books in the future.

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