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43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Novelist Plus Two Historians, 4 April 2012
This review is from: The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King's Mother (Hardcover)
When I saw a book by Philippa Gregory in the nonfiction section I thought it had been mis-shelved. And what was the Cousins' War? I've read a few books about the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Britain and Europe, but here was a war I'd never heard of.

I have to admit I have little interest in historical fiction, and haven't read any of Gregory's novels, but I was drawn in by the concept of this book. In doing research for her series about the Wars of the Roses, she found there were few primary sources dedicated to the women of the period. Secondary sources often downplayed the importance and influence of women. But there was no doubt that many women of the era were well-educated, politically savvy, and ambitious.

So Gregory decided to tackle some historical non-fiction for a change. Little has been written about the first subject of the book, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. As the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, she had a front row seat at the onset of the Wars of the Roses. I can imagine that anyone doing future research of Jacquetta will start with Gregory's book, which distills as much as is known of the Duchess into a readable narrative. Gregory doesn't speculate (any more than other historians) and while she chooses to skip footnotes as too academic for a book intended for general readers, she does include notes on sources and a bibliography.

Her other two subjects, Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV, mother of the two Princes in the Tower) and Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII) already have academic biographies written by current historians, so Gregory enlisted those authors to write short, non-academic bios of the women. These are also very well done, although Woodville's biographer, David Baldwin chucked in too many chatty asides and exclamation points, giving his narrative a slightly patronizing tone.

In addition to the three biographies in this volume, Gregory's introduction is especially interesting. She describes how she came to do this book, as well as discussing the slippery nature of historical scholarship. It's easy enough to dismiss historical fiction as not being factual and taking liberties with fact, but historical fact is not easy to pin down either. You would think that after five hundred years, we would have the facts down about the Wars of the Roses, but every year brings new books, new information, new interpretations, and different analysis.

As William Faulkner wrote, "the past is never dead - it isn't even past."
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Location: Las Vegas, Nevada

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