There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Sunne in Splendour

I may have done a "happy dance" when I found Sharon Kay Penman's novel for $2 in a thrift shop. I'd known about it for several years and been even more eager to read it after the announcement of the discovery of Richard III's remains in February. However, I expected it might take me longer than the library would allow to finish this 936 page novel. I was wrong; it took me just over two weeks, and that with rereading several portions. And the "happy dance" was just the first of many physical reactions that this sweeping epic provoked from me.

I guess I should confess straight off. I'd been holding out on taking the final plunge, joining the rabid Ricardian ranks - declaring Richard III my liege lord. My alleged reason, if I had to give one, would have been that while it certainly can't be proved that Richard was responsible for the death of the Princes in the Tower, he did have enough motivation. The real reason is that while I've had plenty of historical crushes in my lifetime, Ricardians are embarrassingly numerous, organized, and earnest. However, my historical interests have always been in the biographical, "how did individuals live and feel?" aspects, not dispassionate political analysis. (Or rather, I'm interested in reading that analysis after I've developed an emotional attachment to characters, which then makes me too biased to ever be a historian.) I'm susceptible to hagiography, as shown by how much I loved Penman's version of Richard. By the final hundred pages I was in tears,  pounding my bed, whimpering, and softly damning consumption, the Stanleys and Henry Tudor.

Why? Because Penman portrays Richard as a prince among men. That's not because his brother is a king, but because in comparison to the intemperate, impious, self-serving men around him, Richard is a model of virtue and justice. He is loyal to a fault and utterly uxorious to Anne Neville. (Yes, I realize the latter is not a very historically valid interpretation.) From the beginning pages with Richard as the sensitive six-year-old, to the final (slightly overlong) final chapters on early Tudor propaganda, it's unabashed hagiography. Penman tries, but can afford virtually no sympathy for Richard's foes, from Elizabeth Woodville to Henry Tudor. And, yes, Richard is a romantic hero; we don't just respect him, we fall in love with him. Or at least I did. Maybe I should resent that, but I don't.

Since I recently read Philippa Gregory's Cousins War novels, comparisons were inevitable. I certainly felt like I entered into the emotions and motivations of the characters more in this novel than in Gregory's. While Gregory's novels focus on the women behind the famous men, I still felt like several women got their due more from Penman. (Cecily Neville isn't so blatantly biased as in Gregory's account where she favors George, Duke of Clarence, despite his betrayals of his brothers and slander of her own name. Nan Neville's relationship with her daughter Anne is still strained, but not so utterly hostile as in The Kingmaker's Daughter. However, in the latter Gregory has a complex - if slightly confusing - portrayal of Anne and Isabel Neville's relationship that this novel lacks.) While the medieval issues of witchcraft and magic cannot be denied, I've found Gregory's repetitious emphasis on this theme slightly annoying. In contrast, Penman gives a limited, but respectful, view of Catholic faith in those times.

My biggest complaint about the novel is actually its grammar. While the substitution of "be" for "are" could be argued to lend historic sense to necessarily-modern speech patterns, the dropping of conjunctions in the narrative portions brought me up short rather frequently. 

My emotional absorption in the novel hasn't entirely beclouded my vision. I still acknowledge that within the morality of his time Richard III is neither black nor white. I am, however, with Jane Austen, "rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man" and Henry Tudor "as great a villain as ever lived." 

Also, I'm nerdy enough that I'm including this graphic of the Battle of Barnet (found here) for future reference.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for the fabulous and informative series of posts.

  2. I'm really beyond delighted that readers find them useful in understanding the history or their reaction to Penman (or anything else. I just am flattered to be enjoyed).