Recovering History’s Hidden Women
During Women’s History Month we’re encouraged to reflect on the (often unsung) contributions women have made to historical events.
Here Annie Garthwaite, author of the acclaimed historical fiction, CECILY reflects on the need to recover women’s stories and argues that the story of Cecily Neville, matriarch of the House of York during the 15th century Wars of the Roses, is ripe for retelling.
There’s a trend right now among female writers to reclaim the stories of women either airbrushed from history or vilified by it. From Greek myth to the middle ages and beyond, we’re re-animating female voices that have been silenced or quashed. Coming from a generation of women that looks beyond the patriarchy, we believe that today’s women have as much right and potential as men to live fully realised lives. And by writing about the past, we aim to make it clear that, despite the odds stacked against them, exceptional women have been doing exactly that for millennia.
Think of Shakespeare’s wife, buried under the long shadow of her famous husband for two millennia, now salvaged in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. Or Sue Monk Kidd’s creation of the wife of Jesus in The Book of Longings. Among women vilified by history (rather than airbrushed from it), we have Circe, reviled as a witch, but celebrated by Madeleine Miller in her novel of the same name as a woman achieving self-realisation and independence. Or Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne, who guided Theseus to the destruction of the Minotaur, and survived betrayal to become the lover of a god.
But we don’t need to go back to ancient history or myth to find women who have been lost or underestimated in history and fiction over the years. In the many novels written about the Wars of the Roses Cecily Neville, matriarch of the house of York, is rarely more than a bit player. Why has she been so long overlooked?
To a point, I blame Shakespeare. In the history plays Cecily’s appearances are brief, she has no political agenda, no agency and nothing much to say. This damning characterisation has, sadly, stuck.
Yet it’s so wrong! Cecily lived for eighty tumultuous years. She created a dynasty, mothered two kings and led her family through civil war. She was brilliant, flawed, difficult and complex.
A lifelong dynast, Cecily engineered her husband’s bid for the throne and her son’s. She was brazen enough to maintain a cordial exchange of letters with Henry VI’s queen while planning a rebellion. Bold enough, when defeated, to barter for her children’s future with an enemy king. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, it was her London home that became the centre of Yorkist planning as her son fought his way across England to claim his crown. And when he left the city to fight again, he had the good sense to leave management of the kingdom in no one’s hands but hers. And, beyond all this drama, of course, she was a mother who lost children both in infancy and to war. A woman forced to make terrible choices, and live with their consequences.
For a novelist, what’s not to like? For too long stories have been written about what was done to women. There’s now a hunger for stories about what women did – and Cecily satisfies it.
Cecily – ripe for fiction
Fascinating in her own right, Cecily also gives us a fresh perspective on the much written about Wars of the Roses. She was politically active, had privileged access to information and can be shown to have influenced events. Following her story puts us at the heart of the political intrigues and shuffling that paved the way to war. It broadens the agenda and allows us to look closely at the war’s central characters; their personal motivations and political interdependencies. Cecily’s ‘battlegrounds’ are the closed rooms, the domestic halls even the bedchambers of the wars’ key players. With Cecily’s viewpoint to the fore, the conflict becomes, of necessity, a war of words.
Secondly, of course, Cecily’s life is the very stuff of drama and, by any measure, a tragedy. Though she sees her house rise, she also witnesses its fall and must live with the consequences. Viewing the Wars of the Roses alongside Cecily allows us to investigate the mechanics of tragedy through a medieval lens. This is a story about human ambition and frailty set in pre-Reformation England; a world in which God is believed to be the fountainhead of power, and where the punishment for ‘over-stepping the mark’ is both severe and eternal.
As my own novel opens, the reader is called upon to witness two events; the burning of Joan of Arc and the crowning of the young King Henry VI of England as King of France. Events which, Cecily is assured, have been brought about by the will of God. From that she draws her own conclusions, that set her story in motion:
‘She leans back against the cushions and closes her eyes. In her private darkness she calculates the value of all she has learned since coming into France: that the will of God, which has called all things into being, might turn a child into a king, a girl into a warrior, or a body into ash. And that any man – or woman indeed – may, according to their courage, shape His will to their purpose.’
Cecily’s tragedy stems from the tension between the idea of God’s will as an imperative we must submit to, and the all too human tendency to align God’s will with either the wishes of our hearts or the tenets of our politics.
One final thought…
Here I’ve described the reclamation of female stories as a recent phenomenon. Not so, it’s a creative strand with a long tradition. In the 15th century, contemporaneously to Cecily, Christine de Pisan wrote her City of Ladies as a rebuttal of the misogynous literature of the French court. Her City does exactly what today’s novelists are doing – it reminds readers of women’s power and impact on history. Women will keep telling these stories for as long as there are women (and men) to read them; celebrating our foremothers, owning our past, staking our claim on the future.
Annie Garthwaite’s novel, CECILY, is published by Penguin and will be released in paperback on 10 March. Find out more, and sign up for news, at www.anniegarthwaite.com.
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