|Sandra Worth knows her history; her story of the marriage of Isobel Ingoldesthorpe, a Lancastrian, and Yorkist Sir John Neville is as much history textbook as novel. This is problematic. For readers who don’t know much of the background to England’s War of the Roses, the huge cast of characters involved will likely be overwhelming, and in order to keep the players straight, Worth resorts to insertions of historical narrative. Readers’ tolerance of this is likely to be mixed, as it interrupts the novel.
Fifteen-year-old Isobel is on her way to the court of Queen Marguerite d’Anjou, wife of the ineffective King Henry VI, where she is to take her place among the courtiers. During a stopover at a hospitable castle, Isobel meets John Neville, a Yorkist who should be her enemy. They talk, and their attraction is immediate. When Isobel later meets up with John again in London, their feelings for one another blossom. Isobel pleads with the Queen to allow her to marry, and in a surprise move, Marguerite agrees - at an exorbitant bride price. Somehow John’s family raises it, and the two are wed. Marguerite even offers Isobel a ring that she can exchange for a future favor.
John’s brother, Richard Neville, is the Earl of Warwick and will soon be known as the Kingmaker. His increasing popularity with the people is a threat to Marguerite. As the Lancastrians and Yorkists clash, John is captured, and saved only when Isobel requests her favor from the queen. Eventually, Edward of March, a Yorkist, ascends to the throne, and now it is John’s turn to rise in power and wealth.
Edward, against Warwick’s wishes, marries a woman as hungry for power as any man, Elizabeth Woodville. She wastes no time in giving her family members titles and lands, leading to Warwick’s estrangement with Edward. In one of history’s strangest twists, Warwick then allies himself with his former enemy, Marguerite d’Anjou, to bring Edward down and place a Lancastrian king back on the throne. As John must choose between king and brother, he and Isobel will lose almost everything - except their love for one another.
The story is told through Isobel’s eyes, and as a result, she is given no flaws. She and John love each other deeply and passionately, but it’s by no means an objective story. The author uses Isobel to explain the complicated circumstances and events; this works some of the time, but at other times feels forced.
For all that, Isobel is a sympathetic character, relegated to the background of this drama but willing to push to the forefront when necessary. It’s Isobel who details the king’s feebleness; Isobel who describes the descent of her beloved uncle into a violent madness that earns him the sobriquet “The Butcher of England,” and Isobel who risks her safety to save those she loves.
The story stretches over a period of about 20 years, and during that time, Isobel and John are separated a great deal as John rides off to battle again and again. Isobel faces the challenge of raising her children and running a family with her beloved husband gone, and with no reassurance that he will return. Ms. Worth does a fine job of Isobel’s characterization. And the love between them remains strong, though their circumstances are dire at several points.
Lady of the Roses offers a rewarding immersion into a complex and fascinating period in English history. I highly recommend it.