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The Lady of the Rivers


Philippa Gregory

  Touchstone, Simon & Schuster  
Release Date:


  Fiction, England 1430-1464  
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I pick up a book in Goodwill. The cover is interesting and I scan the inner flap, which begins "Descended from Melusina, the river goddess..." I decide it's worth 50 cents to amuse myself.

I begin reading and am immediately struck by the straightforward, first person telling of the story. It is obvious that my assumption of a fantasy romance is wrong. This is historical fiction. Very well written and researched historical fiction.

We meet Jacquetta as a young French lady of the house of Luxembourg. In 1430 they are housing The Maid. That's Joan of Arc. She's been captured and is being held until either the English king rushes her trial or the French king sends for her. Starting the story here is brilliant, because we know Joan and how her story ends. Two repeated themes illustrated by both women are the uneasiness of powerful women in a world ruled by men, and the turn of fortune's wheel that can lift you up one day, and cast you down the next.

Jacquetta's aunt tells her, "Men command the world that they know. Everything that men know, they make their own [] They are like the alchemists who look for the laws that govern the world, and then want to own them and keep them secret. Everything they discover, they hug to themselves; they shape knowledge into their own selfish image. What is left to us women but the realms of the unknown?" She is referring not only to the power of men in the medieval world, but to the mysterious powers passed down to the women of her family from their goddess foremother.

The book never claims magic is real, but does a very, very good job of incorporating tarot, alchemy, foretelling, and hedge wizardry into everyday life as was common practice at the time. Ms. Gregory shows a deep understanding of what could be possible in those arenas and how dangerous it was to admit any knowledge of them as witchcraft and alchemy constantly fell in and out of favor with the court. Jacquetta has some very mild, very rare foretellings, nothing more than foreboding dreams that are difficult to interpret, but always right. She also knows when a member of her family has died, not unlike many people today claim to know when a close loved one has passed away.

The story takes us through Jacquetta's two marriages, the first that makes her a duchess and is a very strange arrangement, and the second for love which produces over ten children. From Joan of Arc through the disastrous War of the Roses, this is a fascinating story of a real historical character who lived through very precarious times in England. Highly recommended.

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