Review: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman


A glorious novel of the controversial Richard III—a monarch betrayed in life by his allies and betrayed in death by history

In this beautifully rendered modern classic, Sharon Kay Penman redeems Richard III—vilified as the bitter, twisted, scheming hunchback who murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower—from his maligned place in history with a dazzling combination of research and storytelling.

Born into the treacherous courts of fifteenth-century England, in the midst of what history has called The War of the Roses, Richard was raised in the shadow of his charismatic brother, King Edward IV. Loyal to his friends and passionately in love with the one woman who was denied him, Richard emerges as a gifted man far more sinned against than sinning.

This magnificent retelling of his life is filled with all of the sights and sounds of battle, the customs and lore of the fifteenth century, the rigors of court politics, and the passions and prejudices of royalty.

My Review

I just discovered that Sharon Penman had the first manuscript of this novel stolen from her car! It was 400 pages long and she was so devastated she couldn’t write for five years. When she took up her pen again, she rewrote the story in 936 pages. Wow. I guess you could say that thief did posterity a favor. I have to go on record that this novel is singularly responsible for my sudden understanding the concept of historical fiction (So sorry Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott!). I had immersed myself in 19th century literature without transferring the genre to present-day works. It was quite a revelation, and this 1982 first edition has been sitting on my shelf all these years until I finally picked it up again for a second reading. There’s been a lot of water under the proverbial bridge since then, but I’m really glad to reintroduce myself to Penman’s first venture into novel-writing. On the marvelous side, she structured this book perfectly. I never lost track of who-was-who, nor did I get lost in the tortuous sequence of events during the Wars of the Roses. Each character was clearly defined, and I cared for the least important personage as well as the protagonists. There’s so much to be admired here.

Interestingly enough, Penman fell into a beginner writer’s foible of attempting to make the dialog seem more period by an excessive use of “do” and “did”: “Because I did make a fool of myself?”; “I did expect better of you than that, Dickon!”; “It’s not a role that does become you.”; “The Lady Isabel did die of consumption…” There were thousands of these throughout the book, and I had to force myself to ignore them. Of course, I forgive these bloopers in the face of a fabulous story. In a way, it encourages me. Even the great Sharon Penman had to learn her craft. If you haven’t had the chance to read this book, I strongly recommend it. You’ll never find a more thorough (and entertaining) recounting of this difficult period. It certainly paints Richard III as a sympathetic character, and innocent of the terrible crimes attributed to him over the centuries. I don’t exactly agree with all her interpretations, but they are well defended and Richard can certainly be given the benefit of the doubt.

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