Annie Garthwaite describes the 40-year journey that ends on 29 July, 2021, with the publication of her debut novel, Cecily. And reflects on how writing helped her find a matriarch of her own.
Mum taught me to read long before school. It was her gift – the key to stories. By the age of ten I was reading whatever she was reading. Historical fiction mostly; Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Anya Seton. You know the drill. Catherine Cookson for a long time, I remember, towering working class matriarchs ploughing up cobbled streets to the defence of their men or their children.
Along with a passion for story, my mother’s gift to me was an untutored conviction that story and history were two sides of the same coin. Later, I met a history teacher who felt the same.
Keith Hill taught history like it happened yesterday. I think he was just glad to have an interested pupil, to be fair, and would rattle on as long as I’d listen. It was the Wars of the Roses for A level and my head was alight with towering characters. Edward IV, the golden boy who hacked through swathes of enemies to reach the throne. Hapless Henry VI, the mad heir of Agincourt. Marguerite of Anjou, who put on armour and rode at the head of an army. Elizabeth Woodville, the impoverished widow who denied the king her body till he married her to get it.
If you ask who was the stand-out figure for me, then, I’d have to say Richard III. The hunchback, the tyrant, the child-murderer. I was about to write him off. “Was he, though?” Keith Hill asked. “Who says?” That was the moment when the story/history penny decisively dropped. The past isn’t fixed or definitive. It’s the raw material of story, open to retelling.
“Read that,” he said and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason came flying across the desk. I was entranced. It gave me a new Richard. Not a murdering tyrant, just a man making tough decisions in tough times. The story Shakespeare didn’t write.
History remained a passion, Richard III an abiding interest. On a wet day in 2012 I found myself staring into a grubby hole in a car park the day after his body was exhumed from it. Later, I followed his hearse to Bosworth, laid my tribute of white roses. It was part apology, really. I’d imagined I’d one day write a novel about him. In honesty, though, my interest had shifted.
Richard’s life is entwined with that of so many strong women, and I’d met most of them in my reading. But I couldn’t escape a nagging sense that one was eluding me. Where was Richard’s mother? In all the novels and biographies I’d read I’d never really encountered Cecily. Why?
Well, you might say Shakespeare ‘did for’ Cecily, no less than he did for her son. Her appearances in his history plays are brief. She has no political agenda and little to do except curse her misbegotten offspring. Shakespeare’s Cecily is old, embittered and dull. The characterisation stuck.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Cecily lived through 80 years of tumultuous history. She mothered kings, created a dynasty, brought her family through civil war. She met with victory and defeat and, in face of all, lived on. Last woman standing. There had to be a story there. Surely?
It was the 1990s by this time. I was in my thirties, heading up European communications for an American multinational. I remember no other women at my managerial level. I was learning how women exercise power in environments dominated by men. Cecily seemed to be getting closer. Within a few years I left to set up my own business, which I ran for 20 years. But I’d made myself a promise. For now I had to make my way in the world. Once that was done, I’d write Cecily’s story. I set myself a target. At age 55 I’d stop work. I’d write.
So, in 2017, when 55 rolled along, I stopped work, started a creative writing MA and gave myself two years to bring Cecily to the page.
At the same time – serendipity – the historian and specialist in medieval women Joanna Laynesmith published her biography of Cecily. I read it and begged her to have lunch with me. We talked through to dinner. I compared what I’d long suspected about Cecily to what she knew. Matched my storyteller’s intuition to her meticulous scholarship. In the weeks that followed, Cecily came into focus. Here was a woman who knew how to operate in a man’s world.
I’d long understood that the journey towards female emancipation hasn’t been a steady upward progression. Medieval women, especially those of the aristocracy, had freedoms their Victorian counterparts could only dream of. Men ruled, certainly, but in the margins women could exercise agency, assume authority, push boundaries. Women of Cecily’s status, with huge households and vast estates, would be responsible for enterprises similar in size and complexity to mid-sized FTSE companies. They’d be, in short, women of business.
At the same time, they’d be expected to support their husbands’ political careers and advance their family’s interests. Above all they were expected to breed. If they failed at that, nothing else counted. Did you think it was only 21st-century women who were expected to ‘do it all’?
Cecily excelled on all these fronts. But that was just the start. She not only lived through seismic political events; she shaped them. A lifelong dynast, she engineered her husband’s bid for the throne, then her son’s.
She was brazen enough to maintain a cordial exchange of letters with Henry VI’s queen while, at her husband’s side, 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, her London home became the centre of Yorkist planning as her son fought his way to the crown. And when he left to fight again, he had the good sense to leave management of his kingdom in no one’s hands but hers.
I could see Cecily clearly now, at last. Striding the 15th century’s corridors of power with her sleeves rolled up, knocking on doors she had no business to enter, defending her own against all comers. Here, at last, was my matriarch.
Today I live in Cecily country, close to Ludlow Castle, where she and her husband ruled supreme for a time and where, on the darkest of days, she faced down an army alone. I go there often. I stand at the foot of the castle steps as she did and imagine her enemies coming up through the town, bladed and bloody. I square my shoulders, lift my chin. Let them come.
Annie Garthwaite grew up in a working-class community in the north-east of England. A schoolgirl interest in history became a lifelong obsession with Cecily Neville, the subject of her debut novel.
- Cecily Neville, her mother and two sisters, Bibliothèque Nationale de France: supplied by the author
- Richard III, c1520: Royal Collection Trust via Wikimedia
- Cecily (second from right) with her mother and sisters, a family of exceptionally influential women, Bibliothèque Nationale de France: supplied by the author
- Ludlow Castle, where Cecily faced down an army alone, © Manuel Diaz: supplied by the author
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