Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

Cecily, by Annie Garthwaite

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

The claim that Cecily is “Wolf Hall for the 2020s” is a big one. The best and rarest thing about Hilary Mantel’s novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his world was their immersive detail. Mantel combined the precision of meticulous research with the emotional grip of carefully-crafted storytelling, to draw the reader deep in to her historical world — one that was also just modern enough to feel instantly recognisable. But surprise, surprise: the claim that Annie Garthwaite has worked the same magic trick is absolutely justified.

Her novel begins in 1431 when it introduces us to Cecily — formerly Cecily Neville, the “Rose of Raby” — as already the very young wife of Richard Plantagenet. One day Richard will be Duke of York, and the Wars of the Roses will see him claim England’s throne. It’s all going to end badly for a lot of the protagonists, and most readers will know a little of this history before they open the novel. The story of the Wars of the Roses has been told to us repeatedly: by Victorian and later romancers and historians, on TV and in print, often not well. Some were half in love with the Yorkshire rose or the Lancaster one, some sentimentalised their heroines to the point of simpering, making them into women who could never have dealt with the actuality of civil war, the insecurity of daily medieval life, the rate of child and maternal mortality or the brutal politicking of fifteenth century Britain.

And like so many of those other retellings, Cecily begins with a witch-burning, not always a promising sign of historical accuracy to come. In this case, though, that opening scene is spot on, deftly and obliquely telling us everything we need to know to become interested in Garthwaite’s Cecily Plantagenet. The “witch” is Joan of Arc and the young couple, Cecily and Richard, are watching her execution in occupied France, where Richard has been fighting for the partly victorious English. Cecily sees, hears and smells Joan burning to death — a military leader, an aspiring young female politician not unlike herself. It’s an ominous beginning, a warning to others. But as we follow Cecily’s thoughts we realise she is not going to be a conventional heroine. She’s disturbed but not deterred. At some level, she doesn’t care. And although we might know a little of her story in history, the joy of the novel is going to lie in how Garthwaite brings to life her brave, clever, stupid choices, her schemes and battles as she sets out to follow in Joan’s footsteps.

That makes Cecily sound as if she might be a villainess, the other side of the simpering-rose coin for historical novelists of the past. But she isn’t. She’s pragmatic, stubborn, callous at times, foolish at others, imperfect but fascinating. She wades into political debate when it’s expected she’ll be silent. She stirs up enmity with her little jealousies, pushes her husband further than he wants to go in his claims to influence, then his claims to the throne. She flatters enemies when they can give her what she wants, lies, smiles and submits, raging inside. She behaves exactly like a real politician in other words: the ones who just can’t let go, can’t live without the taste of power, want to make a difference even though they know where that might lead them. It’s a compelling portrait of a female leader and campaigner: there are elements of Thatcher, Sturgeon, Clinton, Bhutto, von der Leyen. We might like or not like these women, but their stories are all gripping and so is Cecily’s.

The novel might have fallen down over the complexity of the history it has to dramatise. But in fact it handles the historical detail of plotting and battles with a light touch. I’m no specialist on the Wars of the Roses but I always understood what was going on and what was at stake. It was impossible not to root for Cecily, one campaign at a time, to hope things turn out better than we know they will. This is a clever, seductive page-turner, a good story and a good history.

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The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

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