Reviewing books always begins as a chore but usually ends up as a pleasure. That was certainly the case with Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride â€“ Oh not another historical novel, I probably could have been heard groaning out loud, as it fell out of the padded envelope onto my desk. But, once started, I found myself hating to put it down.
This is actually the book’s third incarnation, the author explains. On reading Henry V at school, she was introduced to ‘fair Kate’ but thought there must be more to this simpering character than Shakespeare gave space to. (Yes, we have an author who thinks she knows better than Shakespeare, in this matter at least.) Joanna believed Catherine to be one of the better female characters of the time, interesting and good fun, although not much is known about her, as, in the 15th century, chroniclers tended to concentrate on the people â€“ men â€“ who were doing things. Women were decorations and a Royal Bride was a tool who could make or break a peace treaty. From a very early age, Catherine knew this was to be her role and attempted to make the best of it.
The book was nearly published in the 90s but publishing wisdom of the time was that historical novels were passÃ©, so Joanna wrote two romcoms under her married name of Joanna McDonald and a children’s novel which was shoved in a drawer. Eventually she was drawn back to the story of Catherine.
“It’s such a cracking story. She has an amazing life, although we wouldn’t recognise that life at all today. She had to have been very strong and actually quite clever to live that life.”
But the book is not written with Catherine herself as the viewpoint character. It’s written in the first person through the eyes of one of her attendants. One of Catherine’s ‘damsels of the bedchamber’ was listed as Guillemot, probably an inksplot error for Guillaumette, and Joanna decided to paint a fuller side of Catherine as seen through the eyes of this lady, whom she made originally a wet nurse, and whom Catherine contrived to keep as her companion.
The plot is helped along, when Mette is not present, by some secret letters, written by Catherine to her brother the Dauphin during their separation, which Mette comes into possession of. Of course, in a historical novel, the plot has long been decided for you so that’s one less job for the author, but Joanna has fun with her research, which is very detailed and impressive, and creates an engaging picture of the life and times of Paris under the ‘mad king’.
The Agincourt Bride is much more than the story of a French/English queen, with fancy dresses, fancy food, princes and palaces galore. Through Mette’s eyes we also see the life of the ordinary people of Paris, the breadmakers, the tailors and the vast number of people who are employed in the Royal Household one way or another. Written in great detail and with great confidence, you can not help but warm to all the main characters, to care for Guillaumette’s own family and to hope for Catherine’s happiness.
As well as improving on Shakespeare, Joanna attempts to solve another of history’s mysteries â€“ or at least she offers a plausible explanation. “I wanted to explore the murder of the Duke of Burgundy,” she says. “It wasn’t a good thing from the French point of view as it was against all the rules of chivalry and correct behaviour to carry weapons to a parly. You left your weapons at the door, so when history tells us that he was killed in a swordfight during a parly, it was simply murder and I’ve always wondered how and why it happened. This is my possible explanation.”
And very satisfying it is too. The Agincourt Bride covers the life of Catherine from her birth, through her cruel hard early childhood, her years in a convent, her years at court, where she must play her part in peace negotiations with the all conquering English King, her estrangement from her brother the Dauphin, her eventual wedding and the tragic loss of her first child. The characters are believable, the setting is believable and I feel thoroughly well educated, as well as entertained, for having read it. We leave Catherine and Mette on a boat crossing The Sleeve to England. The much anticipated second instalment, The Tudor Bride, will come next year.
Meanwhile, The Agincourt Bride is available from Amazon in paperback, as an audio book and as an e-reader.