The Lady of the River - The Story of Jaquetta Rivers - A Book Review
This is my favorite novel in Philippa Gregory's cousin's war series, but it is not one which is featured in the new bbc series The White Queen. The Lady of the rivers is a precursor to the other books focusing on the life of Jaquetta the mother of Elizabeth Woodville. Jaquetta was never a queen or even aspired to be one so her life has largely been lost to history. Philippa Gregory realizing this also wrote a historical book about her life with two other historians as a way of shedding light on this remarkable character.
Jaquetta was born the daughter of the count of st. pol a member of the house of Luxembourg the Burgundian royal family. The novel begins during the period of the hundred years war when Joan of Arc having been captured by the English is being kept in a relaxed imprisonment by the Burgundians. Jaquetta as a young girl gets to know Joan and is a witness to her execution an event which profoundly frightens her. She is married for the first time to a much older man the Duke of Bedford who is the brother of the English King Henry V. Because of this marriage she is firmly allied to the house of Lancaster and is one of the premier ladies of the English court. However her marriage is a sham as her husband refuses to consummate the marriage believing that Jaquetta could have magical powers if she remains a virgin. His belief is based on the legend surrounding her family that the water goddess Melusina is their ancestress. Jaquetta herself learns to do magic and believe in Melusina due to the lessons of her great aunt Jehanne. Throughout this period in her life she befriends one of her husbands faithful retainers a minor nobleman named Sir Richard Woodville. When her husband dies and she is left as a childless young widow she realizes she is in love with Sir Richard and he with her. They consummate their passion and conceive a child at which point they quickly get married. Their secret marriage caused a scandal but they were forgiven when they paid King Henry VI a fine. Jaquetta was lady in waiting to Henry's Queen Margaret of Anjou and ended up being one of her closest friends. She and her husband had many children and fought loyally on the side of Lancaster in the wars of the Roses until their daughter Elizabeth married the York King Edward IV.
The Legend of Melusina
Jaquetta was described as being extraordinarily beautiful and having a fish like quality about her. This description comes from the myth that Melusina a water goddess was the founder of their house through her marriage to the first duke of Luxembourg. The legend of Melusina is a pre christian European myth, it is the myth that the story of the little mermaid is based on. Melusina is half fish, half woman and this is something she keeps secret from her husband, until one day he discovers her bathing and sees her true form, at which point she leaves him forever. This story is used in the novel to give an air of mystery to the women of Jaquetta's family, it is also the reason given for their abilities to perform spells and effect change through magic. Jaquetta is suspected of being a witch her entire life although she is never punished for it, she herself is taught by her aunt Jehanne about the family myth and her own abilities. This story was discovered by Philippa Gregory during the course of her research, at which point she brought it to life as an impotant theme in her novels about the women of this family.
The Character of Jaquetta
Jaquetta is one of the most unique characters in all of Philippa Gregory's books. She comes across as someone highly intelligent who is at once arrogant, haughty and extremely kindhearted. She takes great pride in her ancestry and her rank but still marries far beneath her for love and never reproaches herself for her choice. She is incredibly aware of how to run a royal court and is the confidante of Queen Margaret of Anjou and yet she betrays her confidence by switching sides when her daughter marries the Yorkist king. Jaquetta's loyalties are complex but never wavering, her children unlike many other noble mothers of her time are her number one concern and she never abandons them. Her personality is so forceful that even after she switches sides and is arrested for witchcraft by the Earl of Warwick, her old friend now her enemy Queen Margaret intervenes to release her. Her love for her husband is so great that she is in the end unable to live without him and dies, this shows the extreme love she is able to feel and the singularity of her emotions. She is dual natured in that she accepts and even encourages marriages for love and yet she still arranges for most of her children marriages for profit. The one theme that comes across in the novel is that only Jaquetta herself can ever really explain her own actions, no one else is capable of sufficiently understanding her complex personality to do so.
Some Historical Background
Jaquetta's life is one in which warfare is constant. She is born during the period known as the hundred years war, in which her family although French are allied with the English. Her second marriage and life in England throws her family into the middle of the conflict known as the wars of the roses or the cousins war. The hundred years war which was fought on French soil, was an attempt by the English rulers to conquer France . The justification for the conflict was that the King of England had a legitimate claim to the French crown. The reasons for this assertion by the English kings can largely be traced to their own origins as the descendents of William the conqueror Duke of Normandy. In any case whatever the complicated and convolulated reasons this is a conflict that raged on for slightly more than a century and which resulted in an astounding English defeat that threw the English political establishment into chaos and resulted in the cousins war.
Do you believe in magic? Do you believe Jaquetta Woodville could've had magical powers?
My Take on this Novel
I loved reading this book, mostly because Jaquetta has a personality similar to my own, but also because of the perspective I gained on the life of an extraordinary person I would not otherwise have known about. Philippa Gregory focuses on the lives of women when she writes her novels, something that history largely ignores. In the case of Jaquetta even though she never held political power herself she was the intimate confidante of many who did and therefore she knew all the secrets of the Royal houses of England in her time. I wonder what sort of things she might have known but never revealed, things that were never written down and were never included in this novel because they were lost to history. Philippa Gregory does an excellent job of historical research and of un burying a character that history deserves to remember.