Annie Garthwaite waited thirty years to write a novel about Cecily Neville. She’s always been a writer, but a writer within the world of business. She’s worked for multinational corporations, set up her own communications company, sustained a successful career. But, throughout it all, she’s had one eye on Cecily. And Cecily’s had an eye on her. Observing the arch of Annie’s achievements, tapping her fingers on her goblet of wine, Cecily has been patient, biding her time, waiting for the opportune moment.
Which is now. Summer 2021, fresh out of the pandemic, Cecily strikes. If you haven’t already seen her cover – pink, orange, bold black text – you will soon. Well-reviewed in broadsheets, sitting resplendent in bookstore windows, sitting face-out on the shelves, Cecily’s time has come.
But it hasn’t been easy.
Annie vowed to give up her company and career in corporate communications when she turned fifty-five. She enrolled on the MA Writing course at the University of Warwick, but before the first term began, she went on a week-long Arvon creative writing course.
‘I couldn’t write a sentence,’ Annie tells me over Zoom, the week after the novel’s release. ‘I just couldn’t do it. I was writing stuff on this week-long course that was just utterly, shockingly bad. And I panicked. I thought ‘I can’t do it. I’ve lost it. I’m going to have to phone Warwick and tell them I can’t come because I can’t write.’’
Novelist Chris Cleave, author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, was one of the tutors on the Arvon course. Annie turned to him for help. ‘It’s just that your writing engine has seized up,’ he said. ‘You just need some writing WD40. You just have to keep, keep, keep doing it.’
‘But even in the early months of the course at Warwick, I was writing terrible stuff,’ Annie says. ‘I look back at it now and it is embarrassingly, laughably bad. But then, suddenly, and it was almost overnight, the fluency came back. I never find writing easy – every sentence is work, it’s all crafted. I work very hard at every line. But I did start to get the feeling that it was going right.’
I think I remember this moment. I met Annie at Warwick, on the MA course, and I remember a group of us sitting in the café after class. We’d all read a chapter of Cecily and the feedback was glowing.
‘I’m just so relieved you think I can do it again,’ Annie told us.
But this period she mentions, of writing laughably bad stuff – I can’t remember that. When I think back to those early Warwick days, the first few times I met Annie, I think about her quiet, considered answers to questions, the depth of her reading experience, the energy her presence gave to each class. Word soon spread: Annie gave up her business to be here. Those of us sliding from BA to MA felt our backs straighten, our ears prick up. This wasn’t a time for messing about. This was a time to get stuff done.
I was walking away from a workshop once with a classmate, who said: ‘The thing about Annie is, she really cares.’
Annie cares about writing, she cares about her characters, their history. She was first inspired by the story of the Wars of the Roses at school. Back then, it was Richard III that leapt out as a possible protagonist but, after thirty years in business, thirty years as the only woman at the table, thirty years exercising power in worlds dominated by men, it was Richard’s mother, Cecily, at the top of her call sheet.
‘As I grew older, I began to feel closer to Cecily,’ Annie says. ‘When I worked for huge, American, multinational corporations, I don’t remember many women at the same managerial level as me. I know I learned all of the techniques Cecily uses to get stuff done. As a feminist, there are some of them I don’t feel that happy about. Why should I have to flatter men to do what I want? But let’s face it, we all do, as women. We’re still working around it, five hundred years on. It’s ridiculous.’
Over the course of Annie’s novel, Cecily flatters and flirts, she plots and schemes. She also faces an army, bargains for the lives of her children, and endures terrible losses. Annie’s writing is brutal in places, beautiful in others, all powered by her thirty years of research and careful observation.
Other people care about this period too. They write about it, they read about it, they fall out over it. Richard III in particular is a divisive figure, and this has intensified, Annie says, after the discovery of his body under a car park in Leicester in 2012.
‘The history of this period is so contested, so contentious,’ she says. ‘And people have very firm opinions that they hold strongly.’ Annie is planning a second book that continues Cecily’s story beyond the crowning of her eldest son as Edward IV. ‘Whatever position I take on some of the contested issues, I’m bound to ruffle some feathers with book two,’ she grimaces. ‘I’ll be writing not just about Cecily but about her children, including Richard III who is, after all, England’s most contentious monarch.’
The ultimate underdog, Richard III gets people going in a way that very few other historical figures do. For so many, he represents the overlooked, the overshadowed, the falsely-accused. We don’t actually know whether he killed his nephews (and we probably never will) but there reaches a point where fact is almost irrelevant. There’s five hundred years of emotion whirling around, a great deal of rehabilitation to do in Richard’s name, and some bear that burden very heavily indeed.
But if anyone can handle troubled waters, it’s Annie. Not just because she’s a keen kayaker, but also because the woman is made of steel. Her voice is soft, but that just means other people have to lean in. She’s glamorous and feminine, but also ready to hike up a mountain, or to the other end of her homestead to feed the sheep at the crack of dawn. Other debut authors would have been self-pitying when the release of their book was delayed by a pandemic (Cecily was supposed to come out in spring), but Annie has been firm-footed, taken it all in her stride. In the run-up to the launch, she drove to bookshops all over the country to deliver proofs. After publication, she’s been driving all over to sign stock. In the pictures she’s taken with booksellers, they’re all wearing masks. But they’re in a bookstore, they’re holding up copies of her books, it’s still all going on. It’s not perfect – doubtless, it hasn’t happened the way she thought it would – but it’s happening.
And this is one of the things I certainly take away from Cecily’s (and Annie’s) story. Nothing is wholly good or wholly bad. Things just happen. Over the course of the novel, there are battles and deaths, burnings and betrayals. Cecily is a strong force, certainly, but she doesn’t control the world she inhabits – none of us do. There’s something odd, I think, about the way people talk about their lives now. The idea that you can use plans or meditation techniques to determine what happens to you. That if you do enough yoga or drink a lot of herbal tea, you won’t get cancer. If you have enough self-esteem when you step out into the street without looking, you won’t get flattened by a bus. It’s tempting to think about impressive, ambitious historical figures like Cecily Neville and Thomas Cromwell dictating their own paths. ‘It’s so great the way she just keeps on getting up,’ a reader said to Annie. But, Annie said, if Cecily didn’t keep on getting up, she’d be kicked into the gutter.
Sometimes, it’s about more about staying upright than taking a step forward. And staying upright sometimes means pushing someone else over.
‘I don’t want you to think Cecily is good,’ Annie tells me. ‘I want you to think she’s extraordinary. She’s got some real blind spots about herself. It’s partly because she’s so motivated and driven, that sometimes she doesn’t see herself very clearly at all. She doesn’t ever look inwards, she’s always looking out. It’s why the book could never have been written in the first person. Cecily could never have told her own story. It had to be in close third. You have to resist the temptation to explain why characters are the way they are and just show them doing their thing. Readers are smart – they’re dealing with people in the real world all the time. They’ll be able to make similar observations about your characters too.’
And there’s plenty to observe about Cecily. Years ago, in a workshop about Cecily at university, one of our classmates (and NITRB contributor) Anna Colivicchi, threw her hands in the air and exclaimed: ‘Cecily, you are terrible and I love you!’
‘That’s what gives me most pleasure,’ Annie says. ‘When people say Cecily is awful, but they’re rooting for her. I love it when people tell me the book made them cry. If a book makes me cry, it’s making me feel intense emotions. It’s not just intellectually interesting, it’s emotionally engaging. When people tell me they cried when some of the characters died, I see that as a huge tick.’
And people have cried. They’ve also messaged her on Twitter to clarify the exact ways people were killed.
‘Did they really slit this throat on the bridge?’ one reader asked of one particular character. Annie had to tell them that, unfortunately, yes, they did. ‘Oh no,’ said the reader.
Along with some other classmates from the Warwick MA, I went to the Cecily launch party last month. It was held in Ludlow Castle, where Cecily spent some time. She even defended it, alone, against a brawling Lancastrian Army. And then, in July 2021, she was back.
Annie stood in the centre of the room, welcomed friends and family, gave a speech. It’s not just her words on paper that can bring a tear to the eye. Because, as that classmate once said, ‘the thing about Annie is, she really cares.’ Not just about the book she’d written, the story she’d told, but sharing it with the people in the room. Us, her old course mates, her family, her friends. Her partner, Caroline, to whom the book is dedicated.
And then she cracked the spine of the book she’s waited thirty years to write, and read.
It’s the end of May, 1449. Cecily, her husband Richard, and their small children (among them the future Edward IV), are riding across Ludlow Bridge, to the castle. They watch the sun sinking lower in the sky, down towards the battlements. Richard smiles, turns. ‘Ludlow,’ he says.
In the function room, in 2021, the sun is setting too. We go outside, stand on the patio, raise glasses to a wonderful book, to a strange year, to Annie, to Cecily herself. The ruined tower beyond the moat casts shadows. Long shadows, where history hides.
About the reviewer
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed writers for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle