Reading two-thirds of Sandra Worth’s perfectly acceptable trilogy on the life of Richard III (I read the first two volumes: Love and War and Crown of Destiny) didn’t reveal anything that’s not already familiar to any good Ricardian. Worth’s Richard III is strikingly different from Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain, but familiar to many readers of twentieth-century rehabilitations of King Richard III (or Ring Kitchard the Thrid, as he’s always known in our house, due to a Monty Python sketch).
This Richard is a decent, humble, honourable man, deeply in love with his cousin Anne Neville, loyally devoted to his brother Edward IV while recognizing Edward’s flaws. He is forced into taking the throne almost against his will, rather than cruelly snatching the throne away from his innocent nephew and then killing the two little Princes in the Tower (I didn’t read the third volume of Worth’s trilogy so I can’t be certain whom she ends up blaming for the deaths of the princes, but I’m pretty darn certain it’s not going to be Richard, that paragon of virtue and good government).
If I sound dismissive, it’s not of Richard or of Ricardian attempts to rehabilitate his reputation. My introduction to the Richard III story came not through Shakespeare’s play but through the two novels that I believe, more than anything, set the Ricardian ball rolling in the imagination of the popular reader: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, so I’ve always been predisposed to take Richard’s side of the story. Rather, my lukewarm attitude about this new trilogy stems from a literary question that it raised for me: what’s the point of writing a novel about a well-known historical character if that same character has already been well and thoroughly covered by other and better writers — unless you have something strikingly new to add?
Writers of historical fiction do this all the time, of course — most of the great historical figures have been done to death in fiction, by some great writers and some very mediocre ones. Just recently I read and reviewed Philippa Gregory’s The Other Queen, a novel about Mary Queen of Scots that I felt wasn’t as overwhelmingly great as Margaret George’s Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, but added some interesting new perspectives by including the viewpoints of other characters. My foray into Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, last summer, drove me back yet again to Margaret George, as I wanted to compare her Memoirs of Cleopatra with McCullough’s October Horse and Antony and Cleopatra, which covered much of the same territory. George is by far the better writer, but both authors had such different perspectives on their characters that it was very interesting to read both versions.
So, what of Richard III, and of novelist Sandra Worth’s attempt to tread in the footsteps of the unarguably brilliant Sharon Kay Penman? Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour is one of the greatest and most moving historical novels I have ever read. If a newcomer is going to come along and attempt a great, sweeping epic about Richard III, that writer had better have something significant and new to add to the picture that Penman didn’t include in hers.
That’s my only quibble with Sandra Worth’s trilogy: there’s nothing here that wasn’t already done, and done better, in The Sunne in Splendour. I’m not accusing her of plagiarism: I don’t even know if she’s read The Sunne in Splendour, though (incredibly, to me) she doesn’t even mention it in her notes (I can’t recall whether she mentions Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which is less a novel about Richard III than a novel about someone trying to discovere the truth about Richard III, but if she doesn’t, she certainly should have — I’ve returned the book to the library so can’t check right now). I don’t think she’s in any way consciously imitating Penman; she’s simply telling the same story in a way that adds nothing new or fresh to the characterizations, and lacks Penman’s literary brilliance.
Again, I don’t want to sound harsher than I mean to be here. Worth is obviously a competent novelist (at least as competent as I am, which is to say: good but by no means brilliant) who has done exhaustive research into a subject she obviously loves. When writing about Richard and Anne she occasionally strays into romance-novel cliche, and some of her characters, especially Elizabeth Woodville (about whom I once wrote a short story; fascinating woman) are a bit one-sided and caricatured, but those are all the criticisms I can come up with if you’re measuring her books on their own merits,.
But again, I don’t think you can measure a historical novel only on its own merits if another, and better, writer has already written a truly great book on the same subject. Comparisons are inevitable, and the Rose of York trilogy suffers from those comparisons. If this were the first book about Richard III I’d ever picked up, I’d probably have enjoyed it fairly well. As it was, I wasn’t intrigued enough to go on to finish the the third volume. Instead, I decided to treat myself over the holidays and reread The Sunne in Splendour.