I have had it in mind for a long time that I would re-read ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ one day. It wasn’t quite the first historical novel I read, but it was one of the first; it was the book that made me realise that made me realise that research and writing could be brought together to make history live and breathe, it was the book that made me understand the consequences of history being written by the victors, and it was the book that was the first step on a particular reading journey.
I hadn’t intended to re-read it this year, but I spotted a beautiful thirtieth anniversary edition in the library. I didn’t take it home straight away, but when it was still sitting on the new books shelf a week later, when I had realised that it could fit into my century of books, I had to bring it home.
The first time around I came to the ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ knowing next to nothing about Richard III or his times, or about the stories created by the Tudors after they brought his reign to and end, but what I read about his world, his life, his times, made perfect sense. I’ve read and learned more since, but it still makes sense, and I believe in this Richard, a fundamentally decent man who made mistakes.
The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.
It is wonderfully effective, and utterly gripping, because it is told as a human story. Characters, so many characters, are clearly defined and utterly believable, and though some were friends and some were enemies, they were all credible, all understandable. I saw their relationships, their ambitions, their actions, and I saw the consequences. The Wars of the Roses are complex, and there are many battles, plots and intrigues, but even first time around when I knew little more than who the two sides were I had no trouble at all following what was going on.
The perspective moves between a number of key figures, some seen in the foreground and some remaining in the background. That was so effective, and it gave the story real depth. Richard is often in the background , but he remains at the centre of the story as he is seen through the eyes of his family, friends and enemies. Much time is given to the relationship between Richard and Anne, which is a lovely counterpoint to the action and intrigue, but a little over-romanticised. The relationships between Richard and his brothers, Edward IV and George duke of Clarence were far more interesting, all three were fascinating characters, and I was fascinated between the likenesses and the differences of the three brothers.
The story loses something when first George and the Edward meet their fates.
The key test of a book like this is how it deals with the big questions. The biggest question, of course, is the fate of the Princes of the Tower. The way is was dealt with here was utterly plausible, and the answers to the smaller questions were equally plausible. And there were no heroes and villains; just men and women driven by a sense of what was right and there were men and women driven by ambition.
That is a wonderful achievement, but it is the human story that makes ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ sing, and that called me back to the book. My heart rose and fell so many times, and it broke at the end, when Richard had to go into battle to repel Henry Tudor’s invasion after he had lost first his son and heir and then his beloved wife.
I knew what the outcome would be, but I found it difficult to keep turning the pages.
And it may be some time before I can read any Tudor history …