A Civilized Witch Hunt with Tony Riches
Laughable in modern times, the idea of witchcraft was once taken very seriously and for an uncomfortably-long period women were accused of it left and right and subjected to executions or imprisonment. In the case of some women, the accusations were born out of their interests towards subjects that wouldn't be considered befitting a woman, especially if they were of a scientific nature. While that might sound like a cartoonish exaggeration of an age ruled by fear and ignorance, it was the very real story of Lady Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. She once had hopes of becoming the next Queen of England, but as Tony Riches tells it in historical fiction book The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham , fate had other plans in store.
Before even discussing the story itself, I just want to point out that the author isn't one to substitute imagination for facts. He always strives for his novels to remain as accurate and well-researched as possible, so all the verifiable facts in history in regards to the duchess are taken into account and written around. Anyhow, Lady Eleanor's and her husband's downfall came when her family's enemies conspired against them, accusing the former of witchcraft due to her interest in astrology. She is found guilty and sentenced to be imprisoned for life by Henry VI. Over a hundred years after her death, some carpenters working on the Beaumaris Castle discover a box containing the duchess' diary, written in a secret code none could decipher... except for our narrator, who four centuries later has finally found the key to unlocking the mysteries within.
The Shrouded Eleanor
One of the main issues people who are interested in this case have faced is the lack of actual information about Eleanor and the kind of life that she led. The big events of her fate are known to us, but not much more... and for an author like Tony Riches, it's simply an invitation to let his creative ambitions fly a bit more than they usually do. After all, if we only know very little with certainty, I see no reason to fill in the blanks with our imagination, especially since this story is largely centred on her time spent as a captive, about which we don't know all that much.
I believe that the author succeeded quite well in bringing to her to life and molding her personality into something realistic, though not necessarily likeable... and that's a point I'm sort of on the fence about. While I do understand the appeal of making a character that isn't sympathetic and feels real, it was perhaps a bit of a mistake to make her the protagonist as well. After all, the story is about her life and it might have been a better idea a bit less irritating and dangerous to her entourage. Additionally, there are instances where it becomes a bit obvious that the author isn't completely in his element writing a woman character when touching on subjects such as childbirth. With that being said, there are plenty of historical characters surrounding her and the enough information about them to keep us distracted and entertained through to the end.
A Deliberate and Ambitious Plot
The plot of the book moves along at a relatively slow pace, and even at a bit less than three hundred pages it still takes its time to try and describe the times as best as possible. While he seldom gets the chance to really get down into the fine details, Riches gives a relatively complete overview of life in those times and the rules the governed it. With a lot of topics to touch on ranging from famous battles to political power struggles, it sometimes feels like a few of them are underdeveloped with a couple of things left unsaid. In other words, I think this novel could have benefited from being longer so as to give the author a better shot at immersing us into his universe.
The whole twist of her diary being found and deciphered five hundred years later adds a bit of an interesting angle on the story, especially since it creates an interesting contrast between what actually happened to her and the distorted truth people in the modern age believe. There are jumps back and forth in time which get a bit confusing in some instances, but it's not too distracting as we can quickly infer whether we're in the deep past or present times.
The Final Verdict
Taking all the good and bad into account, I think it's safe to say that despite not being perfect, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham remains a captivating read that touches on the criminally-overlooked life on an important woman on whom our information is unfortunately limited. It tells her story in an interesting enough way and attempts to justify her actions well enough that I would recommend it to those who have a fascination with the duchess.
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