The Virgin Widow, by Anne O’Brien – Book Review

The Virgin Widow by Anne O'Brien book cover

Anne Neville is the younger daughter of the Earl of Warwick, the kingmaker responsible for putting English King Edward IV on the throne. Always knowing that she would marry to form an alliance and as her father decreed, she is nonetheless pleased to be betrothed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a favored cousin with whom she has grown up.  The betrothal doesn’t last long, though.  The Earl of Warwick, feeling slighted by the King, plays again at king-making and tries to put the King’s younger brother on the throne.  The plot fails and the family has to flee, but in an act of strategy the Earl marries Anne to Edward, Prince of Wales thus thwarting Anne’s growing passion for Richard.

O’Brien does an admirable job immersing the reader into the world inhabited by Anne Neville.   The War of the Roses, with the competing houses of Lancaster and York, and this time period in general, when English royalty was constantly duking it out for supremacy and the throne, is very confusing.  O’Brien manages to paint a vivid picture while clearly delineating the limited choices dealt to daughters of the nobility.  Anne is the daughter of extreme strategists, and she grows up steeped in their ambitious plans.  The very act of being their daughter places her in danger, that she hasn’t necessarily chosen, when their schemes go awry.  I chafed for her when she was at the mercy of all the power mongering, greed and poor decision making. The first two thirds of the book are incredibly engrossing, and O’Brien is a skilled writer  whose storytelling I enjoyed.

However, the last third of book was problematic for me in that it veered from the historical to the romantic, straining credibility and undermining the carefully laid foundation of my prior understanding of Anne, and Anne’s understanding of the place she held in the world.  When Anne is again placed in Richard’s sphere her feelings for him are capricious, fickle – hinging on whether he was capable of violence to maintain his power (which of course he was, they all used all kinds of shenanigans up to and including murder!) and quibbles over him being engaged to another woman.  This just didn’t fall in  line with either the author’s (or history’s) early portrayal of an Anne who would have understood this as the daughter of powerful nobility.  Anne was developing into a powerful and perceptive woman in her own right, and I was baffled  by the changes love wrought in her and, the questions she thought important to pursue with Richard.

I haven’t read deeply into the War of the Roses, and didn’t know much about Anne Neville, so O’Brien did a good job of making me aware of Anne’s story in an engaging and enjoyable way.  This novel mostly concentrates on Anne and Richard’s convoluted courtship, so Anne’s life isn’t covered much once she marries Richard. We don’t really see her life when he becomes King Richard III and she his Queen, but there is a brief mention of how she turned out.  Some random incest, and out of character behavior for Anne in love at the end of The Virgin Widow threw me for a loop, but those looking for some romance while learning more about Anne Neville, the War of the Roses, and Richard III should give this a try.

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4 Comments

  1. I’ve always thought she cared for him deeply as a cousin and friend, and he must have felt the same way (as by the time they married, he could have found someone more dynastic) but what I mostly remember about her is that when her son died she faded away herself. Sad, just when Richard needed friends most.

  2. I agree about the latter half, although I didn’t realize going into this that O’Brien intended this more as a romance than a historical. Still, Anne’s behavior wasn’t quite what one would expect of a lady of her time demanding all those declarations of true love and all.

  3. Oh no. I’m not sure I’d like the side-track into the romance genre. I’ve got this one on my radar but haven’t followed through to read it yet.