The times are pretty hectic these days and although I have posts queued up, I’ve hit a bit of a dry patch.
Thank goodness for Lisa who has offered to submit a guest post to this blog… here, she reviews The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon K Penman.
Lisa is a graduate of art and design and after working for an advertising agency became a freelance writer to spend more time with her children. She loves to write but doesn’t have too much time on her hands (understandably) to maintain her own site on a regular basis.
Hope you enjoy this post…Much was made earlier this year of the bones of the long dead monarch Richard III being found underneath a car park in the British city of Leicester. Since then, there has been something of a rush to try to find historical literature (both fiction and non-fiction) to read on Plantagenet England, a time and place in history that has often been overlooked in favor of the Tudors. There’s been a good many authors who have tried to cash in on the sensation, but somehow none have managed it, so to find a decent take on period which covers the Wars of The Roses there’s one author we can turn to, who can provide a fairly comprehensive fictional overview and that’s Sharon K Penman.
The Sunne In Splendour
The novel is set in 15th century England, a very unstable period in history due to the ongoing Wars of The Roses and the battle between the ruling houses of York and Lancaster. The story really centers upon the life of Richard III (or as he was in youth, the Duke of Gloucester) and follows him through his traumatic childhood, his adolescence, his marriage and final death on the battlefield at Bosworth in 1485. It shows him grow up, it shows him at the side of his brother, King Edward IV and it presents him as a young man with feelings and with heart, something that people like Thomas More and Shakespeare sought to destroy in the following century. If anything, this book actually eulogizes him. If you believed he was an evil man before you read it, your opinion should change once you do, such is the power of Penman’s writing.
It is a weighty, weighty tome – normally this would put many people off, but even though it runs to almost nine hundred pages it isn’t a read that will take a lot of effort or end up being used as a door stop!
The book has many positive points; it is one of the few sensitive and rounded portrayals of Richard III, the monarch who everybody seems to love to hate. It offers a properly formed character – someone who you might not like all the time, someone who does carry out some despicable acts, but also someone who acted in the ways he did because he believed, in his heart that what he was doing was right.
With this book, what you are getting is the history of the last Plantagenet king – and a story which is pretty much correct and directly lifted from historical text books bar the odd little inaccuracy here and there. Penman writes very accurate and believable descriptions of many of the battles that took place during the wars. Of particular note are her descriptions of both the Battle of Barnet and the Battle of Tewkesbury. Within both these, she sets out not only the military side of the conflicts, but the human side too. We see characters grieve, we can feel their blood loss and we cry with them as they lose their loved ones or, inevitably, have to kill to survive. One particularly harrowing piece describes the death of Richard’s brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland at the Battle of Wakefield. The sheer brutality and the cold-blooded ruthlessness in which his life was terminated are particularly chilling to read. It is passages like this that make the book so worthwhile to stick with and they provide a stark contrast to the opulence of the court at the time.
We also see the love lives of the nobility too and thankfully, not in too much detail. Many a historical novel is often spoiled by flowery descriptions of the characters salacious sex lives. Whilst there is a little here to titillate, it is done so in a sensitive fashion and never overdone. You feel Penman is wanting to show that the characters are real people with romantic feelings and desires, but without slipping into bonkbuster territory or gauzy sex scene central.
The negative side of the novel
Every good novel does have its down sides. This one is no exception. The main problem is that sometime, the language the characters use feels far too modern, far too twentieth century to be believable or to actually work. As a prime example of this, throughout, characters use phrases like “I guess” a lot – and in a book in which there are very few historical inaccuracies, this does feel like a bit too much of a let down. This has the effect of ruining some of the more intense passages of writing and lends an unnecessary touch of melodrama to the work, which almost cheapens the quality of the otherwise stellar writing. For someone who has obviously put her heart and soul into researching the period and constructing real historical characters in a way that makes them accessible, these occasional lapses into US Soap style speak detract from the story.
Some of her female characters, particularly Anne Neville feel a little too weak to be true. Anne does have to provide somewhat of a contrast to the stronger natured character of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s wife, but she sometimes lapses into sugary sweet territory. Anne might not have been the strongest link in the Plantagenet story, but neither was she as biddable as is made out here.
However, if it is a realistic story of a bloodthirsty, engaging period in history that often gets overlooked then this could be just the thing for you. You’d be better advised to read this before you tackle some of the other authors who have written on the period such as Phillipa Gregory, who spins a good yarn, but often lets her imagination stand in the way of historical accuracy.