Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman (1982)

As promised, this "Wars of the Roses" novel roundup now goes way back to 1982 for a reread of Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour. The central character of Penman's tale is Richard York, whose reign as King Richard III of England was the penultimate chapter in the "Roses" bloodbath - giving way on the battlefield of Bosworth Field to the Tudor dynasty.

Penman's aim was to undo the damage long done to Richard's reputation by Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal - which was based on writings of contemporaries bent on promulgating an unflattering portrayal. The recent discovery of Richard's remains in Leicester supports at least one of those reforms - we now know that he was short, partly because of adolescent-onset scoliosis (spine curvature), but not Shakespeare's "hunchback". This condition may have been progressive, which in turn may have contributed to a deterioration of his mental state as he aged.

While agreeing that Richard ordered the death of the captive Henry VI, Penman successfully (to my mind) refutes the claim that Richard murdered his two young nephews in the Tower of London (in agreement with Philippa Gregory). With somewhat less success, she also takes on the slander that Richard committed incest with his niece (who later became Elizabeth Tudor - The White Princess). The first acquittal is more convincing than the second, but there's really no way to know about either one - that's what makes this period so much fun for novelists.

Other than Richard and his wife Anne, the other main characters get more-or-less equitable treatment. With the exception of the inscrutable Henry VI, they all come across as supremely ambitious, charismatic, talented leaders but with feet containing large quantities of many varieties of clay.

Richard's depression and fatalism following the deaths of his son and wife Anne supply a plausible explanation for his reckless behavior leading up to that final battle. Such behavior could even explain the desertion of allies who might have begun to doubt Richard's capacity to lead. Again, we'll never know for sure, but it works in a novel.

The Sunne in Splendour is still my favorite of all the "Wars of the Roses" novels, and gets straight 5's on the criteria, except perhaps for the last - plausibility. It's rather unfair, however, to criticize any novelist for failure to come up with entirely plausible (to the modern mind) explanations for inexplicable actions that occurred 600 years ago.

Still, the goal of a good (as judged here) historical novel is to tell a ripping good yarn without obvious abuse of recorded facts. Sharon Kay Penman accomplishes that feat as well as anyone.

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