This reading group guide for The Lady of the Rivers includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Phillipa Gregory. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The life of Jacquetta is extraordinary. She is born into the St Pol family, the rulers of the Duchy of Luxembourg, and witnesses the fate of Joan of Arc while still a girl. Married as a matter of policy to the great Duke of Bedford, it is only when she is a young widow that she can begin to shape her own destiny. Though she has the Sight, at once a blessing and a burden, she still has to navigate the waters of the English court and attempt to build a stable future for her growing family in a time of great change and increasing danger. Her longed-for marriage to Richard Woodville is a deep and abiding love match but comes at a great cost, and their rise in the world is followed by yet further twists in fortune. Yet Jacquetta Woodville, Lady Rivers, is a unique and powerful character and one who manages to place her family in a key position to survive the forthcoming wars.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Jacquetta’s first main influence is her great-aunt, Jehanne of Luxembourg, who tells her: ‘A woman who seeks great power and wealth has to pay a great price.’ Why do you think she says this to her niece? Was she right, and what sorts of power would she have been referring to? Do we see the women in the story exercising other kinds of power?
- Joan of Arc is absolutely certain that her voices come from God. Jacquetta is much less sure where hers are from, saying, ‘I never think of it as a gift coming from God or the Devil.’ What sort of voices do you think they are hearing, and do their different beliefs affect the future of either character?
- As the story opens, England is ruled by the boy king, Henry VI, as his father has died following his famous conquests in France. Was Henry V an impossible act to follow? What kinds of pressure were there on the young Henry VI? And how might things have been different if his father had not died when he did?
- ‘The whole of France is ours by right,’ says the Duke of Bedford. Would most people have thought that at the time and how does that idea seem to us nowadays? Why did England want lands in France? Jacquetta has a strong vision that ‘it won’t be him [Henry VI] who loses Calais’; what is the significance of this? Is this the author giving a nod to the actual (but far later) historical event of the loss of Calais?
- The Duke of Bedford surrounds himself with alchemists and astrologers, in his search for the philosopher’s stone. Do you think this makes him a man of science or superstition, and is Jacquetta just another scientific instrument?
- How does this search for knowledge compare to the women’s practice of witchcraft, for example Margery Jourdemayne and her planting by the stars? Jacquetta later says, ‘Every woman is a mad ugly bad old witch somewhere in her heart’. What does she mean by this and do you agree?
- Both Jacquetta and Margaret d’Anjou leave their native country as very young women, never to see their mothers again. Compare the way they cope with this and in what ways it affects their later lives. What sort of mothers do they themselves turn out to be?
- Henry V’s judgements are often inconsistent, for example on his summer progress when nobody can be sure if they will be punished or pardoned. He and Margaret are also known for the lavish rewards heaped on their favourites. So was Jack Cade right to rebel? Should a subject always be loyal to the monarch?
- When Jacquetta and Richard Woodville finally get together, she says, ‘I have become a woman of earth and fire, and I am no longer a girl of water and air.’ How has the author used imagery of the elements throughout the book?
- Even though Jacquetta realises Elizabeth has the Sight, she is reluctant to pass on the knowledge of how to use it to her daughter. Yet, she does so. Given the danger if they were discovered, should she have done this? And was she right to lie to Elizabeth on her wedding, when she felt there would be no real future for the marriage?
- Jacquetta and Richard are drawn together by their passionate love and dare to marry against the odds. But what keeps them together, through their many separations, the birth of so many children and the frequent turns in their fortunes and status? Do you think their relationship changes?
- After the battle of Blore Heath, Jacquetta takes shelter with a blacksmith and his family, and realises ‘these are the people that we should be fighting for’. What does this night on the flea-ridden mattress teach her? What do you make of the blacksmith’s comment, ‘It’s a good day already, the best we’ve ever had’?
- Jacquetta fears that she has almost come full circle, and that she’ll find herself in ‘a country which was like that of my childhood, with one king in the north and one in the south, and everyone forced to choose which they thought was the true one and everyone knowing their enemy and waiting for revenge’. Do you think this comes true? And how did those early days prepare her to survive and even thrive with her family?
- When Margaret abandons Jacquetta to potential danger, she tells her, ‘They won’t hurt you, Jacquetta. Everyone likes you.’ Do you feel she’s right?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- The Lord Mayor of London sends for Jacquetta to act as an intermediary between the aldermen of the city and the queen. This is a recorded historical event, one of the rare times that Jacquetta is acting as a principal in a major event. How different is this to anything she’s attempted before? And is Richard right when he says ‘No other woman could have done it’?
- Philippa’s website, www.philippagregory.com, is replete with information about The Lady of the Rivers and all of her other novels. You can watch video interviews, learn more about all of Philippa’s books, read her impressions on her travels around the world, join in an international discussion topic, learn about and participate in several historical debates, make a donation to the Gardens of Gambia, Philippa’s charity, and sign up to receive her newsletter.
- The Lady of the Rivers sheds light on two other Philippa Gregory stories: The Red Queen and The White Queen. Read one or both of these to enhance your understanding and enrich your experience.
- Consider serving foods from the time period at your book discussion. For example, look up recipes on food.com or epicurious.com for potted fruit or gingerbread, both of which are served at Jacquetta’s wedding to the Duke of Bedford (p. 41). When hiding from soldiers at a blacksmith’s house, Jacquetta muses, “they have a corner of black bread made with rye, they have never tasted white bread” (p. 329). Serve a luxurious white bread next to a hearty, dark bread to symbolize the great divide between the nobility and the peasantry.
A CONVERSATION WITH PHILIPPA GREGORY Having written The White Queen and The Red Queen, what inspired you to further explore the story of Jacquetta, a lesser-known historical figure?
- For the fascinating history behind Philippa’s series about the Cousins’ War, read The Women of the Cousins’ War, a book of nonfiction in which Philippa is joined by two other eminent historians to present the lives of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford; Elizabeth Woodville; and Margaret Beaufort.
I found Jacquetta’s influence on her daughter completely fascinating when I was doing the research for The White Queen
. It was hard to track her life as she is only occasionally mentioned in the historical record, but her marriage to the Duke of Bedford marks her entry to the historical records, and her second marriage to Richard Woodville was an international scandal at the time. She seemed to me to be really worthy of her own biography and novel and since no one has yet written her biography I have researched and am publishing an account of her life in a nonfiction book: The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King’s Mother.
As the author of several international bestsellers, you have fans from all over the world. How has the increase in your success and popularity affected your relationship with your fans?
I am conscious that very many people use my book as a starting point for their own studies, that many people want to know more about me and my work and so I maintain my website with regular updates and material, and I am really grateful for their enthusiasm and affection for my work.
The Lady of the Rivers contains several references to the difficulty the women of this time face in a man’s world. Did you find it challenging to research so many instances of women being subjugated, punished, even put to death because they dared to think and act for themselves?
I think the women in this novel, as the women in many of my novels, are the heroines of women today—they are our fore-mothers. Their courage and struggle for their rights is an example and an inspiration to me. I love to write about them and bring their stories to modern men and women.In “The History Debates” section of your website, you pose the question of the difference between history and historical fiction. You write: “The imagination is where the historians are almost indistinguishable from the novelists.” Can you expand more on this notion?
All historians have to work with their imagination to fill in the gaps in the historical facts, they have to imagine what is happening when we have no way of knowing for sure. Also, most histories consider the character and inner life of their subjects and this is exactly what a historical novelist does. No one could write a history of a character without imagining them.Can you tell us more about your charity, Gardens for The Gambia?
I visited The Gambia in West Africa when I was researching my novel on slavery, A Respectable Trade
. While I was there I met a Gambian school teacher and together we have worked to put fresh-water wells into primary schools in The Gambia, a very dry and very poor country. The project has been so successful that we have now done almost 200 wells, and we are now setting up beehive co-operatives and we teach pottery-making, gardening, and batik workshops. In fact, we are the biggest well-digging charity in The Gambia and have recently completed a big project with Rotary International. If anyone would like to join with me in this wonderful work they can donate online at www.philippagregory.com.Is there one historical figure who has particularly surprised or affected you?
I think I was especially moved by the early life of Katherine of Aragon which is not generally known but which shows a young woman in extraordinary circumstances. More recently, the story of Elizabeth Woodville who was an English commoner and rose to be one of the most glamorous and successful queens of England was a wonderful story to research.Do you follow the same process for research and writing or does it change from book to book? Where did you write The Lady of the Rivers?
I use the same process for all my books. I visit significant sites, I talk to specialist historians and museum curators, I read and read and read, and when I have completed about four months of research I start to write, and then rewrite, while continuing to read. The whole process takes about 18 months. I work wherever in the world I happen to be, and I often travel with a box of research notes!Are you planning to write more about the Plantagenet line, or will you shift focus to a different family or century?
I am going to write three more books at least on the Plantagenets, as I think they are a fascinating family.