Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Queen by Right includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anne Easter Smith. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Hundred Years War between England and France is still raging when Cecily Neville is born at Raby Castle. Dubbed “the Rose of Raby,” Cecily is the twenty-second and youngest child of Ralph Neville, the powerful Earl of Westmorland, and also cousin to the King Henry VI. Cecily’s fate becomes entwined with the King’s when she is betrothed to Richard Plantagenet, the orphaned duke of York, whose claim to the throne is arguably stronger than young Henry’s.
Cecily’s arranged marriage to Richard develops into a true love match and one of history’s greatest love stories. Their growing family lives abroad for many years, as Richard is posted to the English-controlled regions of France and Ireland by Henry’s councilors, who fear Richard’s proximity to the throne. When King Henry VI becomes unfit to rule due to mental illness, ‘Proud Cis’ must help Richard balance his political ambitions with what is right for their family and the kingdom.
As civil war escalates between the cousins of Lancaster and York, Cecily will suffer the greatest of losses. But in the end, she will witness her oldest son assume his father’s place at the head of a victorious army and be crowned King Edward IV.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How would you characterize the initial relationship that develops between Richard Plantagenet and Cecily Neville when Dickon joins the Neville family as a young ward? Why is their betrothal considered a great match for Cecily? How does their formal betrothal ceremony alter the dynamics of their relationship?
2. On a ride through the woods when she is eight, Cecily surprises a white deer and interprets its appearance as a holy sign. Later, at her father’s death, she witnesses a white dove, and it to be a symbol that her father will be accepted into Heaven. How would you describe the trajectory of Cecily’s faith over the course of her life? How does her faith guide her decisions? What events eventually bring about her disbelief?
3. How does his father’s execution during Richard’s childhood create a kind of social “guilt by association” that Richard must strive to overcome? How does Richard’s behavior at Court bear evidence of his wish to compensate for his family’s scandalous past?
4. Given her own station as the noble daughter of an esteemed English family, and the wife of the powerful and well-connected Duke of York, why does Cecily Neville feel a special kinship with Jeanne d’Arc, a young French peasant? What aspects of Jeanne’s life might Cecily especially admire or envy? How does their encounter in Jeanne’s cell change Cecily’s life forever?
5. In the scenes involving Jeanne d’Arc, Cecily undergoes moments of intense spiritual awareness, in which she witnesses what she believes is the physical presence of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever felt a similar awareness of a divine presence or spirit? How were those experiences transformative for you? If you’ve never felt anything of the sort, can you imagine why such an experience might change someone’s life and way of thinking? Why or why not?
6. How does the author’s strategic use of flashbacks in the novel’s narrative enable you as a reader to see Cecily’s life through her own memories? Of the many parts of her life that Cecily reveals through her memories, which ones were most powerful or memorable for you, and why? Consider Cecily’s childhood, her relationship with her husband, and the births and deaths of her many children.
7. Cecily is surrounded by women who help her navigate her life—her mother, Joan, who informs her morality; her sister-in-law, Alice Montagu, who explains carnal matters with forthrightness; her attendants, Rowena and Gresilde, who take care of all of her daily needs; and her personal physician, Constance LeMaitre, who helps deliver her children and serves as her confidante. What do these relationships reveal about the sphere inhabited by women in this era? Of the many connections Cecily has with women, which seem to influence her most profoundly?
8. How would you describe Cecily’s feelings about motherhood? How do the many children she loses in infancy affect her feelings toward her surviving children? How would you characterize her role in her children’s development, and how does it compare to her husband’s influence?
9. How does Henry VI’s mental instability contribute to volatility in the English kingdom and Europe at large? How is the fragility of his mental state foreshadowed in Queen by Right? Why does the pregnant Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s French-born queen, see Richard’s efforts to serve as Regent during Henry’s illness as a threat to her child’s future? To what extent are Margaret’s fears warranted?
10. How does Cecily actively subvert the following advice from her mother: “I suppose you will learn the hard way that women will never be a man’s equal in this world. We may lend an ear, we may even counsel our husbands when asked, but we are a man’s property from one end of our lives to the other.” To what extent does her role in her husband’s decision-making suggest that her power in their marriage is far greater than meets the eye?
11. What does Cecily’s behavior in departing from her embattled castle in Ludlow reveal about her true nature? Why does Henry VI show mercy in sparing her and her young children from execution? Given her frustration with her husband for his absences during other difficult moments in their life together, to what extent were you surprised that Cecily did not bear any resentment toward Richard for putting her in such a dreadful position?
12. How does Richard of York’s intense military campaign against Henry VI enable Edward’s political rise and eventual crowning as King Edward IV? What does Edward’s public reception as a hero and sovereign reveal about the English people’s attitudes toward Henry VI? How does Edward’s ascent to the English throne impact Cecily Neville personally?
13. If you could relive any periods of Cecily’s life, which would you choose to revisit and why? How does Cecily Neville compare to other heroines and historic figures you have encountered in literature?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. To learn more about Anne Easter Smith visit her official website at http://www.anneeastersmith.com/ . Be sure to watch the Book TV video segment about Anne’s walks through England and about how she keeps historical dates straight while writing. If you’re on Facebook, you might also want to visit Anne’s Fanpage and share your thoughts about Queen by Right: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=52995307114&ref=ts.
2. In Cecily’s life a series of women guide her development from a young and outspoken daughter to the esteemed mother of the English king—first her mother, Joan of Westmorland, then her attendants, Rowena and Gresilde, then her personal physician, Constance LeMaitre. Discuss with your book club the women in your life who have shaped you and helped make you the person you are. What qualities do you recognize in yourself that you feel have been molded by these women? What are the qualities in them you most hope to emulate?
3. Turn your next book club meeting into a movie night! Try watching Henry VI with Peter Benson or Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman, or one of the newer Joan movies, for a full immersion in the world of 15th century England and English Normandy. Discuss how the movie versions compare or contrast to your reading of Queen by Right.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANNE EASTER SMITH
In Daughter of York, you explored the life of Margaret of York. At what point in your research for that novel did you realize you might be interested in writing a longer work of fiction about Margaret’s mother, Cecily Neville?
I have been intrigued by Cecily Neville since enjoying Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour almost twenty years ago. She never appeared in my first book, A Rose for the Crown, but you could almost imagine her imposing presence every time I mentioned her! Some of my favorite scenes in Daughter of York were between Margaret and her mother, and I chose to revisit the beginning scene in Daughter in the prologue of Queen by Right.
How do historians depict Cecily Neville, and to what extent does your portrait of her agree or disagree with their assessments?
Believe it or not, there is very little written about Cecily that is not incorporated in biographies of the men of the period, but most of those portray her as proud, intelligent, and strong-willed. She was known for her reclusiveness and piety in the last 20 years of her life, and so I have tried to imagine what caused her to shut herself away. True, it was quite common for widows to retire to an abbey (like Elizabeth Woodville), but I chose to use a few life-changing experiences of Cecily’s that might have made her turn to God later in her life. I hope I have been true to the information we have about her.
The martyrdom of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, plays an important part in Queen by Right. How did her death at the hands of the English impact Anglo-French relations?
Joan’s death probably impacted the English morale most and not English-French relations. In the end, it was what Joan did before her death that impacted the relations, especially the crowning of the Dauphin Charles, which coalesced the many French factions under one leader and enabled them to chase the English from France once and for all. It’s amusing that today, when a Frenchman and an Englishman argue about who was top dog in their respective conflicts of the centuries, the argument usually comes to an end when the Frenchman accuses the Englishman of burning Joan of Arc. Neither has forgotten that heinous act.
How does Margaret of Anjou’s marriage to Henry VI complicate the political future of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York?
The birth of Henry’s heir, Edward of Lancaster, was certainly a setback for Richard! As you have read, poor Henry was not a good king—although he was probably a good manand his bouts of madness might have led to Richard becoming king, but once Margaret had a son to champion, her determination to destroy Richard became an obsession.
How do historians explain Henry VI’s state of mental incapacity and his dramatic recovery? Are these episodes attributable to any known malady?
It is believed Henry may have suffered from catatonic schizophrenia or a depressive stupor brought about by a sudden fright (such as the loss of France), which causes the victim to fall into a catatonic trance. His French grandfather also had bouts of madness.
In Queen by Right, Cecily Neville’s faith sustains her through some of the more difficult periods of her life. What led you to focus on the spiritual dimensions of her character?
I try and stay true to those known facts about a character, and it is known Cecily was quite pious especially later in life. However, it is fair to say most medieval people of any learning did a lot of praying and were always concerned for their immortal souls. A man might commit murder or order a murder one moment but be at the confessional the next telling his rosary. Religious ritual was a daily part of everyone’s life. Because it is a known fact about Cecily, I used the spiritual side of her life as a theme in the book.
Can you describe the kinds of research you do in preparing to write a novel of historical fiction set several hundred years in the past?
Would you like the long or the short answer? Seriously, I never stop researching whether by reading anything I can get my hands on about my period or by visiting and photographing all the locations I write about. For my fifth book, I spent a week in London walking those locations my protagonist would have known, scouring the 15th century chronicles I found at the London Library, and immersing myself in the workings of the medieval guilds. Research is fun, but it is oh-so time consuming!
Is there any historical explanation for the feud you depict between Cecily Neville and Jacquetta Woodville? Why might Cecily Neville find a figure like Jacquetta Woodville less than trustworthy?
You have found me out! There is no evidence for the feud between these two fascinating characters except for the fact we know Cecily strongly disapproved of Edward’s marriage to Jacquetta’s daughter, Elizabeth (which happens after Queen by Right ends). Once I knew that Jacquetta and Cecily were in Rouen at the same time, and that the community of ex-pats would be small, I was certain these two very beautiful and clever women might be in competition and so I grew the rivalry from there.
To what extent is Cecily Neville’s betrothal to Richard Plantagenet at age eight atypical of marriage arrangements in that era?
It was not at all atypical among the nobility. In fact, Cecily and Richard were unusual in that they had not betrothed their sons by the time Richard was killed at Wakefield. I think the youngest wedding celebrations I know about were between Richard’s grandson and namesake, Richard, also duke of York, and Anne Mowbray, heiress to the Mowbray dukes of Norfolk in 1478. He was four and she was six!
In the course of your research, did you discover where the nicknames “Rose of Raby” and “Proud Cis” originate? How did these monikers enable you to fill in some of the blanks where Cecily Neville’s character and person were concerned?
To be honest, I never did find the origin of these nicknames, but they are everywhere in the secondary sources down the centuries. It told me that Cecily must have been very beautiful, and it also told me she was not someone who suffered fools gladly. I have tried to show that she had a public side where she maintained a cool and aloof exterior and a softer yet passionate side when she was with her family.
Why did you decide to tell Cecily’s story largely through flashbacks? What advantages did that narrative technique afford you as a novelist?
I would not say the narrative reads as one long flashback. I liked using the “frames,” as I call them, to have Cecily reminisce after Richard’s death on some years and historical events that did not need to be part of the story. I used them to move the years along. But the story part of the book is chronological and moves forward.
How common was it for noblewomen like Cecily Neville to be attended by personal physicians as part of their retinue?
Fairly common among the royalty. Most noble households would have had a physician, but maybe not all would have one for the husband and one for the wife. Constance is Cecily’s foil, and because Cecily was the only girl left at home and then is stuck with her mum for so long, I felt she needed a woman who would be an intellectual equal and more of her own age. I wanted to show that there were women physicians at that time, although they were highly mistrusted by men!
In Queen by Right, you characterize Richard and Cecily’s relationship as a genuine love match. Is there anything you uncovered in the historical records—other than the existence of their many children—to suggest that they were in fact deeply in love?
No, unfortunately the personal feelings of most of historical people from that time are not recorded anywhere, except in letters. And even those are stilted and formal to our way of thinking. However, the fact that Cecily did insist on following Richard around so much instead of staying meekly at home with the children told me that they enjoyed being together. I also thought it was unusual for a wife to plead for her husband to the king on two occasions, which showed me how devoted she was.
If you could somehow travel through time and meet Cecily Neville in person, what would you want to ask her?
Who would you like to see play you in the movie? Seriously, I would like to ask her how, after giving birth to thirteen children without benefit of 21st century hygiene and medical knowledge, her body held up until she was 80. She had those children in a period of sixteen years from age twenty-five to forty-one. Our daughters give birth to two or three children these days in their thirties, and we think it’s a huge deal!
I’d also like to thank her for living such an incredibly dramatic and rich life that lent itself so perfectly to an historical novel.