Anne O'Brien On The Many Sides of Historical Figures In Fiction
Anne O’Brien’s new historical fiction, The Virgin Widow, shows King Richard III in a very different light than other fictional works. Now the author discusses why she made this choice and provides a snapshot of her version of the king in an excerpt at the end of the post.
Writing history as romance can be a challenge, but a fascinating one. The hero and heroine must be worthy of the role or it just doesn’t work. Some lovers leap from the page of the historical novel: Abelard and Eloise, Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Some most certainly do not, and for many readers, Richard of Gloucester, later to be Richard III, heads the list.
It was my deliberate choice to write Anne and Richard’s story as a romance.
Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker and central character of The Virgin Widow, has all the possibilities of the perfect romantic heroine; a young girl manipulated by family and high politics irrespective of her own happiness, but who was no victim. The female role models in the late fifteenth century who I believe must have influenced her – her mother and powerful heiress Anne Beauchamp, the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou, Richard’s mother Duchess Cecily of York and Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England - they were all dominant characters, far from being shrinking violets. But if the romance was to work, Richard of Gloucester must be seen by the reader as worthy of Anne’s love and trust. The story of their love will be unbelievable is he is not the man with whom she could fall in love. The hero need not necessarily be a knight in shining armour, but the reader must understand why the heroine falls for him. He must have some redeeming features.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard is not promising: a man deformed, as black in character as in physical appearance. But Shakespeare had his own agenda, writing Richard III in the age of Elizabeth when it was in his interests to denigrate the man who had challenged the Tudors for the crown of England. Richard is not lover-like, wooing Anne over the bloodstained body of the recently murdered King Henry VI with the words:
"I’ll have her but I will not keep her long."
Can Richard be anything but a monster and a villain?
I believe that he can.
Portraits of Richard do not show him with any degree of physical deformity. They show a charismatic figure whose confident stare holds the viewer. The strong features and firm mouth suggest a man not at ease with life, and demand that a reader discover more.
By concentrating on Richard’s life before he became King, I could sidestep the enormous problem of the deaths of the Princes in the Tower and Richard’s involvement. Yet even though I avoided this, I have not argued against Richard’s political assassination of Edward of Lancaster, nor have I ignored his role in the death of Henry VI. Instead I have given Richard’s own justification for the first, and left the second ambiguous. It was a bloody age in which to live and security of the crown was a prime objective. Richard is not without blood on his hands: his justification must stand on its own merits.
As for the rest, I adopted the widely expressed historical opinions that Richard was intelligent, a born leader, precociously gifted in administration and on the battlefield, and loyal to his brother the King.
That’s not to say that Richard was not ambitious. As a Prince of the Blood he was determined to secure what was due to him, and capable of devious scheming. Without doubt he was determined to marry Anne. Was it to take her inheritance for himself, or because he had an affection for her? Anne and Richard were raised together as children at Middleham castle. Was there an attachment between them from those early days? There is no evidence that there was: but this can play into the hands of the novelist. There is no evidence that love did not exist. The Virgin Widow presumes that it did.
And so here is Richard, and we must not forget how young he was, only eighteen years old when he became Constable of England and led his troops to victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Children grew up fast when they were raised from birth to lead and rule. I hope I have made him sufficiently enigmatic to create a realistic character who is neither black nor white, but a powerful man of his day, capable of being both challenged and admired by the reader.
Richard has many supporters. I like to think that Anne, at fifteen years old when she married him, would have been one of them. Whatever choices I have made, they are my own. I hope I have preserved an authentic voice for both Richard and Anne, and my own integrity as an historian.
And, of course, I hope The Virgin Widow makes a compelling and exciting read!
Here is one of the most violent episodes, in which Richard was certainly involved, used to heighten the dramatic and romantic tension. Anne’s dream records the historical record of this event in Tewkesbury Abbey in this excerpt.
Was Richard guilty of the cold blooded murder of Anne’s husband? Anne finds her love for Richard compromised. In The Virgin Widow Anne demands the truth and I have allowed Richard to give his own justification.
- Anne O’Brien