I had been looking forward to reading this book since I first became interested in the Wars of the Roses and decided I wanted to read as much as I could on the subject. First published in 1937, Under the Hog gets good reviews and appears on several lists of recommendations of novels set in this period, so when I settled down to read it I expected something special – and luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.
Under the Hog is a fictional account of the life of Richard III, but along the way we also enter the minds of the other notable men and women of the period, get amongst the action on the battlefield, witness private conferences and murders carried out in secret, and are offered a surprising solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to give a synopsis of the plot here, as it does follow the course of real history very closely – and I’ve already written about this period many times before in previous reviews – so instead I’ll just make some general observations about the novel itself.
The approach Patrick Carleton takes is quite unusual. Rather than writing from the perspective of one character or even a few, he writes from many different viewpoints, switching from character to character as the story requires. These include Thomas Wrangwysh, the Mayor of York; the diplomat Philippe Commynes; the scholar Dr Warkworth; Richard III’s close friend Francis Lovell; Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Richard and Edward IV; and Ralph Miller, a young soldier at the Battle of Barnet. So many different voices and personalities, each one coming forward to tell their own part of the story, however big or small, before retreating into the background, in some cases never to be heard from again.
Richard himself is seen mainly through the eyes of other people. It’s only really his wife, Anne Neville, who sees the warm, sensitive man behind the rather grim and austere exterior. Carleton’s portrayal of Richard is largely sympathetic – not a saint, but a human being who sometimes makes mistakes like the rest of us, ruthless when necessary but not needlessly cruel. I appreciated the fact that Carleton takes the time to show us some of the good things Richard achieved during his reign, which are often overlooked, such as his reforms to law and justice. The only thing I didn’t like was his persistence in drawing attention to Richard’s height – or lack of it. When Richard’s skeleton was discovered in Leicester in 2012, it was found that he suffered from scoliosis which would probably have affected his height, but Carleton’s constant descriptions of him as being unusually tiny still seemed a bit strange. He also has Richard continually biting his lip and playing with the rings on his fingers – presumably inspired by the way he has been pictured in his portraits – but again, it was a bit distracting!
The other characters, including the minor ones, are generally very well written. I particularly loved the portrayal of the spiteful, petulant but strangely tragic George of Clarence (I liked the way Carleton tackles the legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey) – and of Anthony Woodville, brother of Edward IV’s queen, quietly scheming to keep control of the power his family wield in England. It’s Anthony who, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, comes up with the idea of murdering the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which I think might be the first time I’ve seen him blamed for that particular incident.
I loved this book, but I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it as a first introduction to Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The reader is very much dropped straight into the action and it is assumed that you will have at least some background knowledge; names are given their less familiar old-fashioned spellings – Tydder and Wydvylle for Tudor and Woodville – and there are passages of untranslated French. This is probably one to enjoy after you’ve already gained a bit of familiarity with the period.
If I hadn’t known that this was a book from the 1930s I would probably have assumed it was a lot more recent than that, as it has aged very well. It is witty, unromantic and written with a mixture of darkness and lightness. Although it unfortunately seems to be out of print at the moment, if you share my interest in this fascinating period of history, you could do a lot worse than to find yourself a copy of Under the Hog.