Writing historical fiction is not easy, especially if you are writing about a real person. You cannot assume that your readers are going to understand how hard it is, or the difficult choices you have to make.
DAUGHTER OF YORK is the story of Margaret of York (1446-1503), sister to Edward IV and wife to Charles, Duke of Burgundy. In Ms. Smith’s telling of this story, the narrative arc is hung almost entirely on the romantic attraction between Margaret, and Sir Anthony Woodville, brother to Edward’s Queen. So it is unfortunate that Ms. Easter Smith chose to focus on the fictional aspects of the love-story between Margaret of York and Anthony Woodville in her Author’s Note, because some of her readers in their Amazon Reviews said that they felt cheated. What they don’t understand is the paucity of documentation from the Middle Ages that tells you anything about people’s emotions, or psychological states. It turns out that Ms. Smith did have some evidence for thinking that there might actually have been a romantic relationship, the fact that Margaret did stay with Anthony at his estate in Kent during her visit to England in 1480. If I had been Ms. Smith, I would have re-written that paragraph in the Author’s Note to bring that fact forward.
So what about the novel itself? It opens very well, with beautifully rendered descriptions of the London skyline circa 1461, the music that was played during court ceremonies, and the clothes worn. I also found Anthony Woodville’s dialogue to be quite wonderful: “I commend your choice, Lady Margaret. Mine is Lancelot du Lac, for his gentleness, courtesy and courage. If I may be so forward as to tell you, my aim is to model myself upon him. You do know he was also the greatest fighters of all Arthur’s knights, do you not?”
Now I loved that snippet of dialogue, because I think that Ms. Smith has artfully created the illusion of Sir Anthony actually speaking to us from the fifteenth century. But I am British, and I was made to read Shakespeare when I was twelve. Most American readers are going to find that kind of language too turgid, and the lack of contractions too awkward to read. One of the reasons why Phillippa Gregory is so successful is because her fifteenth-century characters talk in language that is considerably more modern and slangy. Which means that there are far fewer bumps for today’s readers.
This is a long novel, at 557 pages, longer than most. It must be clear to readers that Ms. Smith has done an enormous amount of work on researching this novel. But telling a wonderful story that will grip readers and carry them along demands a very different set of skills. Ms. Smith tells us that she went to great lengths to whittle down the research and make it more palatable for her readers. But I honestly think that this novel would have benefitted from even more whittling down, because it sags in places.
Despite its flaws, I think that anyone interested in this period should give it a try, if for no other reason than that the research is impeccable.
–Cynthia Haggard writes novels. She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE, a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.