The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien: An enthralling and authentic story - book review -

The Paston women open a window for us into the life of a vibrant and ambitious family in the fifteenth century

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 12:30 pm
The Royal Game
The Royal Game

Just as Samuel Pepys’ diary gave us a vivid snapshot of life in the 17th century, it is the richly detailed letters of three remarkable women from the ambitious Paston family of Norfolk that help to illuminate the 15th century in all its domestic, social and political complexity.

Anne O’Brien, a teacher turned queen of historical fiction, has made it her mission to put flesh on the dry bones of some of medieval history’s most fascinating but forgotten women, imagining not just the inner sanctum of their private hopes and fears, but the small detail of their lives and the world which they inhabited.

And here this accomplished author seamlessly blends fact and fiction to breathe new and colourful life into the Pastons, a family which rose from humble beginnings to climb to the very heart of court politics and intrigue during the bitter Wars of the Roses.

Fortunately for posterity – and historical novelists – the thrusting, single-minded Pastons wrote copious letters to each other, both the men and the women, and it is this revealing correspondence, detailing family disputes, their loves, their losses and their tragedies, as well as the minutiae of everyday life, that O’Brien has harnessed for the first of a riveting two-part series.

In England in 1444, Justice William Paston, a man of many talents, ‘both meritorious and dubious,’ is dying. Born into peasant stock, William has propelled himself and his family into a higher, wealthier league through determination, vaulting ambition and cunning.

His eldest son and heir, John Paston, knows it won’t be an easy life for them now. ‘Success gives birth to enemies’ and it will be his responsibility to ‘drive off the vermin that stalk us’ without the use of his father’s experience or reputation.

Fortunately, his wife is Margaret Mautby, a young woman with an iron will who was specially chosen by Justice William because, as an heiress to property, wealth and, most importantly, status, she was ‘a juicy Norfolk plum waiting to drop from the tree.’

It was no instant love match. Margaret had experienced no ‘throbbing of her heart’ but she liked John Paston sufficiently, and his prospects even more. The marriage has since proved successful as the couple share a sensible and pragmatic nature, and a warm affinity for each other.

The family also includes Dame Agnes, Justice William’s no-nonsense, ruthless widow, and Elizabeth (Eliza), Margaret’s sister-in-law, who seems doomed to be a sad pawn in the marriage stakes and whose search for a husband is marked with cruelty at the hands of Agnes who beats and bullies her daughter.

And waiting in the wings is Anne Haute, a cousin of Elizabeth Woodville, the highly influential wife of Henry VI’s successor, King Edward IV, who is determined to entrap John and Margaret’s ambitious and charismatic eldest son, Sir John Paston, and become a Paston bride.

As King Henry VI’s grip on the crown hangs by a thread and the Wars of the Roses start to tear England apart, these women face stern challenges. The House of Paston has begun its rise to power and the family’s ability to plot and scheme sees them overcome imprisonment, violence and betrayal to eventually secure for their family a castle and a place at the heart of the Yorkist Court.

But success also breeds jealousy and brings them dangerous enemies…

O’Brien’s inspired use of the Paston letters as the bedrock of her novel allows readers to engage with the full gamut of emotions experienced by these medieval wives and mothers, and to witness their undoubted power and influence behind the scenes of a society still very much dominated by patriarchal privilege.

Using their feminine wiles, wisdom and courage, our three visionary Paston women face enormous challenges both within and outside their homes as civil war rages and enemies – motivated by greed and envy – seek to plunder their wealth, land and possessions.

At the heart of the action is the tough matriarch Margaret, the family’s lynchpin and guardian of their wealth, whose job it is to keep a tight rein on her husband, sons and servants through siege, battle and legal disputes, and manage the essential provisions of a busy household.

Waiting in the wings is Anne Haute, another strong woman and the daughter of a Kent MP, who must learn to adapt and survive, and quickly becomes adept at charting a course through rebellion, treachery, warfare, shifting allegiances and the inevitable tragedies.

And despite being late to the marriage game and becoming embroiled in the political turmoil, Elizabeth Paston’s resilience and bravery is eventually rewarded with a marriage that brings her some unexpected happiness.

The Royal Games proves to be an enthralling and authentic story, based on real people and filled with the kind of rich and exciting drama that transforms history into a living, breathing canvas.

As O’Brien reveals: ‘The Paston women open a window for us into the life of a vibrant and ambitious family in the fifteenth century… it pleased me to allow their voices to be heard, loud and clear, from distant Norfolk. And what better way to discover the Paston men than through the eyes of the women in their lives?’

Roll on the second book in this absorbing series!

(HQ, hardback, £20)