The Royal Game
The novel opens with a dispute over a will between mother and son, Agnes Paston and John Paston, which sets the tenor of the book. The Pastons are a litigious family, based in Norfolk. Their story is told from the perspectives of three women: Margaret Paston, John’s capable, spirited wife; Eliza Paston, John’s sister; and Anne Haute, who is betrothed to Margaret and John’s oldest son.
Margaret’s voice has the lion’s share of the narrative. Her life is a constant round of supporting her difficult husband in ceaseless strife over property. Eliza is physically and emotionally abused by her mother and seems doomed to spinsterhood. When she finally marries, her happiness is short-lived as her husband dies on the St Albans battlefield in 1461.
The weakness of King Henry VI allowed for court factions and eventually civil war. These events are initially distant for the Pastons but come nearer as their fortunes rise and they accrue valuable but disputed castles and manors. When John is imprisoned for the third time in Fleet Prison, Margaret cunningly garners the favour of King Edward IV with a faked family tree. Suspicion remains that John may have indeed falsified the will that led to the family’s sudden enrichment.
It is initially a little difficult to be moved by the family’s avaricious pragmatism. However, O’Brien is especially good in her descriptions of the clothes and textiles belonging to her characters, and Margaret’s cures for boils and chilblains are nicely drawn. The scenes of court flirtation between Anne Haute and Sir John Paston are well-written and vivid. The author is drawing on the Paston Letters, most of which are held in the British Library, but her faithfulness to her source material means that the narrative is sometimes lacking in drama.
O’Brien immerses us in this extraordinary family’s quest for social aggrandisement in the 15th century, as they rise from peasantry to aristocracy.