Monday, August 14, 2006

To the Tower Born by Robin Maxwell

This book was Book of the Month for August over at Historical Fiction Forum.

Debated for more than five centuries, the disappearance of the young princes Edward and Richard from the Tower of London in 1483 has stirred the imaginations of numerous writers from Shakespeare to Josephine Tey and posited the question: Was Richard III the boys' murderer, or was he not? In a captivating novel rich in mystery, color, and historical lore, Robin Maxwell offers a new, controversial perspective on this tantalizing enigma.

The events are witnessed through the eyes of quick-witted Nell Caxton, only daughter of the first English printer, William Caxton, and Nell's dearest friend, "Bessie," daughter of the King of England, sister to the little princes, and founding
ancestress of the Tudor dynasty.

With great bravery and heart, the two friends navigate this dark and dangerous medieval landscape in which the king's death sets off a battle among the most scheming, ambitious, and murderous men and women of their age, who will stop at nothing to possess the throne of England.

Hot on the heels of The Daughter of Time, this book offers another perspective on what happened to the little princes in the Tower. Were they murdered by Richard III? If not, what happened to them, and who made it happen?

Nell and Bessie are best friends. Nell's father, William Caxton was the first English printer, and therefore had a lot of royal patronage. By situating his shop within the walls of Westminster, it is therefore made plausible that his only daughter Nell would become close friend of the York princess, Elizabeth, who eventually becomes the wife of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) and therefore mother of Henry VIII.

The story of what happened during the final tumultuous years of the York dynasty is being told to a young Prince Harry by his mother and Nell. Harry's older brother Arthur has just died, and Bessie is beside herself with grief. Nell forces her way into the palace in direct disobedience to Margaret Beaufort, the King's mother, and when Harry also sneaks in to his mother's room, the two women begin reminiscing. Covering the death of Edward IV, and some of the reign of Richard III, the girls tell of the story of the times, up until some time towards the end of the Richard's reign, and also of their loves.

There are several problems with this novel. When a book starts out with an event that appears to be completely unrelated to any other event in the book, it is probably not a great sign, but still I kept reading. The main issues that I had with this book are around the number of coincidences and the modernism of the characters. On numerous occasions either Nell or Bessie just happened to be in a position to overhear one of the meeting between someone plotting an uprising or revolt, or they just happened to be able to sneak into the Tower thanks to all the friends that worked on the gates and promised not to reveal their presence.

With the girls able to come and go just about anywhere, and then Nell being offered a position as the tutor to Edward, Prince of Wales, and then as secretary to Margaret Beaufort, it felt at times as though the author was trying to capture a modern audience at the expense of historical authenticity. There are plenty of other examples as well -for example when a romantic relationship develops between Nell and Anthony Rivers, her father is fine with it, despite the fact that Lord Rivers is already married. It has to be said that it appears that the author is a big fan of Anthony Rivers, to an extent I have never seen before in books about this time period.

So, did I enjoy this book?'s "kind of" for an answer? I liked her theory as to who was behind the disappearance of the young princes from the Tower - it made a lot of sense, however she didn't really follow through with what actually happened. It was almost as though the author realised that she was right up to her allocated 300 pages, and bam...that's it. Thanks so much for coming! And then right at the very end, there was just a few lines that tried to tell what Nell and Bessie were up to as at the end of the current time that just had me incredulous - hard to say much more without spoiling completely!

If I was to mark just on enjoyment, I would probably give a lower mark, but I am going to rate this book 3 out of 5, simply because it was a new and quite interesting solution to an old question.


  1. right up to her allocated 300 pages, and bam...that's it. Thanks so much for coming!

    Classic! Thanks for the laugh ;)

    I've always been intrigued about the missing princes but I have no need to read fictional ideas. I want facts! I want to know what happened! Maybe I'm better off not knowing.


  2. The problem is that no one really knows what happened to them...and the chances are we never will!

  3. I had the same problems with this book, especially the jobs Nell was offered (was there a medieval equal employment opportunity commission?), Caxton's as-long-as-you're-happy-sweetheart reaction to Nell's love affair, and the abrupt ending. Frankly, I can't imagine how the editor let that ending slip by.

  4. Spoiler

    ****The whole spy thing was what left me scratching my head!****



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