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Carpe Librum: Richard III takes center stage again

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Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new biweekly book column. Every other week I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum, but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well. 

The Sunne in Splendour: A Novel of Richard III
by Sharon Kay Penman
St. Martins, 1982, 944 pages

The Sun in Splendour
by Jean Plaidy
Putnam, 1982, 365 pages

In 1982 two books with the same title on the same topic, were released. Jean Plaidy’s “The Sun in Splendour” was at least her 143rd, the 71st published under the pseudonym “Jean Plaidy” (she was also known as Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr and Eleanor Burford). By contrast, Sharon Kay Penman’s “The Sunne in Splendour” was her first novel. She wrote it twice; the first copy of the manuscript was stolen from her car. After several years of grief, she rewrote the book while she was practicing law full time.

Both books are fictionalized accounts of the life of Richard III, though the actual Sun in Splendour, to which the titles refer, was his older brother, Edward IV. With the BBC releasing the second cycle of “The Hollow Crown” this year, and Benedict Cumberbatch announced to play Richard III, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the story.


Though both authors employ a third-person narrator, they focus the point-of-view characters differently. Penman looks at the story mostly (but not entirely) through the eyes of Richard, beginning with his childhood and his heroic, captivating older brother whom he worshiped: Edward. Plaidy moves through several point-of-view characters but begins, interestingly, with Elizabeth Woodville. Woodville was a commoner who managed to secretly marry the King of England, Edward IV, then bear him an “heir and a spare”: the two princes (who died in the tower), Edward V and his brother, Richard—named for their father and uncle.

Penman does not believe Richard killed his nephews in the tower. As a well-trained lawyer, she does a good job arguing her case, and by the time we get to the possibility of the evil deed, her readers are firmly convinced of her hypothesis. In her author’s notes, she describes in detail her research methods and any liberties she has taken with the facts. She is quick to say if in real life someone was staying at a castle on the first Tuesday in May, then she has made sure in her books they are at that castle on that date.

Plaidy doesn’t so much try to exonerate Richard of the crime, as to illustrate the court politics and family dynamics which make the princes’ deaths inevitable. Whereas Penman writes scenes and “shows” rather than “tells,” Plaidy is a storyteller—and she tells her story with pages at a time of no dialogue. For Plaidy it is the pageantry of the court, the beautiful setting and the struggles of the human heart that interest her the most. She glosses over battles; they happened, that’s really all that needs to be said about that.

Penman, on the other hand, is more of a modern novelist. Lengthy battle scenes fill the book. It is a perfectly expected inclusion in a book about The War of the Roses. Battles covered the length and breadth of the island, and Penman is keen to make the impact of the aristocracy’s disagreements on the lives of the peasantry real. She shows the devastation to towns, lack of food and rampant pillaging. For her, Richard is a sympathetic character—a man who spent his life at the mercy of fate and others’ whims.

Plaidy almost sees Richard as an afterthought, which, compared to his larger-than-life brother, is not an unreasonable perspective. Due to her interest in Elizabeth Woodville, there is more discussion of the Woodvilles and the maternal line of Edward V than one finds in Penman’s book. For Plaidy, Woodville is a quiet, placid figure, who raises her brothers to positions of importance in the government but doesn’t meddle in court affairs. Penman on the other hand paints her as the classic scheming creature of the court—a danger to Richard and all who oppose her.


It’s fascinating the two books share a title, topic and year of release, yet are so vastly different in scope. If anything, to see the beginning of Sharon Kay Penman’s remarkable career as a novelist is wonderful. It may have taken 12 years and a lot of heartbreak to write—and rewriter per the manuscript theft—but clearly the book is worth her pain and effort. For Plaidy, it is just another book in the middle of her six-decade career (which ultimately produced almost 200 novels).   

If anything, the books confirm the endless fascination with the War of the Roses. George R.R. Martin has commented that the “Game of Thrones” books were inspired in part by the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses. The scheming of the court never gets old as a plot or topic of conversation.  With the discovery and reburial of King Richard’s skeleton in the last few years, these novels are more timely than ever.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ivana

    April 6, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    I haven’t read the Plaidy book, but ‘m a big fan of Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour. She has a real gift for characterization in particular. Richard is the focus of her novel, but I don’t think one can say that the narration is mostly from his POV. In fact, large portions of the book are from 3rd person POV of various people – there’s Richard, but also his wife Anne Neville, Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard’s friend Francis Lovell, Richard’s mother Cecily Neville, Richard’s unfortunate brothers – Edmund and the infamous George Duke of Clarence, Lancastrians – queen Margaret of Anjou, the two Dukes of Somerset and prince Edward, later Elizabeth of York and her sister Cecily, Henry VII in one chapter near the end of the book, and a bunch of other people , some of whom get only a chapter or a few scenes in a chapter. I’ve read a few other historical novels from the same period, good and bad (the good – Reay Tannahill’s Seventh Son and Rhoda Edwards’ Some Touch of Pity, aka The Broken Sword, and it’s ‘prequel’ Fortune’s Wheel; the bad – Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown, and Philipa Gregory’s books, some of which I started in hope they would be better than the TV show The White Queen and make more sense, but gave up on when I realized they’re even worse, if anything), and most of her characterizations are the best (particularly of Edward IV, Anne Neville and Elizabeth Woodville). She also really knows how to convey the emotion, drama and epicness of the events described, best of any of the above mentioned writers.

    Nitpicks about the article – we don’t know that Edward V and his brother Richard died in the Tower. It’s just an assumption that a lot of people seem to make, because there were rumors to the effect. They may have died in the Tower, or they may have been moved elsewhere at Richard’s orders, or kidnapped/freed/taken somewhere by someone else, or maybe one died and the other didn’t, maybe the younger one was the later pretender that Henry VII claimed was called Perkin Warbeck, or maybe he wasn’t. All we know for sure is that they were definitely in the Tower at one point, weren’t seen in the Tower after the early months of summer of 1483, that there were many rumors and theories about what happened but no clear evidence.

    Also, Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t actually a “commoner”. Her mother Jacquetta of Luxemburg was from Burgundian nobility, the daughter of the Count of Saint-Pol, and she was Duchess of Bedford because her first husband had been John, Duke of Bedford, one of the uncles/regents of king Henry VI. Elizabeth’s father Richard Woodville had been a common knight (and son of a landed knight), which is where the idea of her as a “commoner” comes from, but after his marriage to the widowed Duchess of Bedford, which was a scandal at the time, he was made Baron Rivers by Henry VI (and later was promoted to Earl Rivers by his son-in-law, king Edward IV). The Woodvilles were minor nobles whose father had been common born, so they were seen as upstarts by many of the old nobility, and she was seen as too lowborn to marry a king. But saying she was a commoner sounds like the king married a merchant’s daughter/widow, or a peasant, and that never actually happened in the history of England.

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