Vulpes Libris

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Richard III Week:The Sunne in Splendor by Sharon Kay Penman

The title can be a metaphor for many things in this book, but is most obviously taken from the emblem of Edward IV after the natural phenomenon of a parhelion, in which ice crystals in the air gives the optical illusion of 3 suns, occurred during a decisive battle early in his career.
This is a very well written historical novel, full of vivid descriptions and flashes of poetry, such as one soldier’s thoughts before a battle, “They’d all die here in this grey dark, this fog that smothered the field like a shroud.” The characters are sharply drawn, their personalities distinct: the vengeful wrath of Marguerite d’Anjou, the haughtiness of Elizabeth Woodville, the sneaky opportunistic Duke of Clarence, the devotion of Francis Lowell. The secondary characters are as fleshed out as the main ones, something that many authors don’t do. And the family entanglements are made clear, despite so many similar names; all the Richards, Cecilys, Edwards and Georges.
We first meet Richard III as a sensitive seven year old and follow him as he becomes a formidable battlefield commander and finally, king. There is a love story, not just with his wife Anne, who loved him since childhood, but also with his brother, Edward, who is king before him. It is this relationship that makes up the bulk of the book, Richard is fiercely loyal to his elder brother throughout his life, despite having very different personalities. Edward is a charming, outgoing womanizer, Richard a serious, moralistic man. He is not a hunchback in this version, though mention is made of scars from a shoulder injury in his youth.
But we don’t really get to know him, as the third person narrative does not give a glimpse to his inner thoughts, though the author does for a number of the other characters. His actions are all described from the outside and we are to deduce his feelings from that. This felt lacking, a main character ought to have more depth. I wanted to know him better and felt cheated that he was kept so remote.
It was one of a few flaws in the book. One of the most disturbing ones takes place at the very beginning of the book when Lancastrian soldiers invade the town where his family is living. His mother flees the castle with young Richard and his brother George. Up till then, they were mostly cared for by their nanny, Joan, but for some reason she doesn’t go with the family and ends up being raped by the soldiers. Why did their noble mother suddenly start taking care of her own children? Why was Joan not with them as they fled? It’s inconsistent.
There is a feeling of gloominess throughout the book, perhaps because there are so few happy occasions; so many battles and plots and betrayals. Though not quite as bleak as some of Cecilia Holland’s novels, the feeling becomes a bit oppressive in the latter half of the book. Richard’s brief reign was filled with so much conflict and sadness.
Penman thoughtfully included an Afterwards in her book, telling us what happened to all of the major personalities, something that was much appreciated. She also refutes some of the myths surrounding Richard with logic and even traces the origins of some of the rumors. It is a fitting ending to a book that is sweeping, sad and worthy of inclusion in the legend of the troubled king that was Richard III.

Ballantine paperback 1982 936 pp. ISBN 0-345-36313-2

12 comments on “Richard III Week:The Sunne in Splendor by Sharon Kay Penman

  1. Anne Brooke
    August 19, 2008

    Sounds very interesting indeed – would definitely like a novel that gets closer to who Richard might have been though!


  2. Pingback: Coming Attractions: Richard III Week. « Vulpes Libris

  3. Peta
    August 19, 2008

    I read this book over and over again when I was in my teens and it quite possibly contributed to my decision to take a degree in medieval and early British/European History. For years I’ve been utterly unable to recall the title or author though so I am delighted you’ve showcased it as now I can buy a new copy!

  4. Col
    August 19, 2008

    I had a copy with very attractive-to-teens pics of Richard and Anne on the front. I read it several times and feel it is the best overall novel that deals with RIchard’s life and reign, in that it does involve the reader very deeply in the family. The relationship with Warwick and his brother John are also well-drawn.

    AS for Richard’s own inner life and thoughts: the only time I regretted that aspect was when Penman tries to deal with the disappearance of the princes and (I believe) doesn’t really make it clear what happened (apart from the fact that Richard didn’t do it): there’s mention of deaths, or some act of Buckingham’s or unavoidable things happening, and I thought that the author had fudged it. I think that *detail* has to be absolutely clear, a choice has to be made. Waffling over it – even if it is not ‘historically provable’ doesn’t serve the integriry of the rest of the history delivered in the book.

    The other best book dealing with Richard is We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman.

  5. Pingback: Do You Love/Hate Richard III? « Fuzzy History: Learning History through Fiction

  6. Moira
    August 19, 2008

    Do you think was a deliberate decision on Sharon Penman’s part – not to give a ‘voice’, so to speak, to Richard? Perhaps because we don’t really know him, and to have given him a ‘made up’ personality might have hit a false note?

    I don’t know … because I haven’t read it … it’s just a passing thought.

  7. Col
    August 19, 2008

    I’m pretty sure it was the best thing to do. It gives the reader chance to project a little of what they personally feel about his character. Gordon Daviot’s play “Dickon” comes close to how I imagine Richard to be.

    I just wish Penman had nailed her own colours to the mast about the princes.

  8. Susan Higginbotham
    August 19, 2008

    I thought Penman made it crystal-clear who murdered the princes. I won’t say here, for those who haven’t read the novel, but in one scene she tells you exactly who killed them and how it was done.

  9. Margaret Donsbach
    August 20, 2008

    I didn’t feel the novel was too gloomy, or that too little of Richard’s inner voice came through. I did find it hard to believe a person with Richard’s background in such a violent time and place could end up with such an almost saintly personality – but that was after I put the book down, not before! There’s a brief review on my website at

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  11. Pingback: Richard III for Dummies Part 1 meaning a quick introduction « I Want to be a Pin Up

  12. Pingback: The Sunne in Splendor by Sharon Kay Penman | The Sleepless Reader

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: historical and tagged , , .



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