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.