‘You make everything into your own tragedy.’
I was at an academic conference last year called Marginalised Mainstream which had a really interesting paper on the books and perceptions of the books of Philippa Gregory. I had to confess that I had never read any of her work though I am of course interested in historical fiction and occasionally read the kind with the more “feminine” slant. I also had to confess that one reason I had been put off had to do with the covers—shallow, I know, but it happens that the “headless woman” covers of Gregory’s earlier work, The Boleyn Girl included, are a bone of contention due to the way they depict their heroines.
I will say this book, which does not deal so much with the Tudors as with the generation before, the War of the Roses, a subject I confess I don’t know that much about (my main source is Shakespeare), is quite different than Wolf Hall. I preferred Wolf Hall, yet I did find it entertaining and worthwhile. I did learn quite a bit about Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, who, like Mary Tudor, is perhaps a bit difficult to love. It feels a bit fan fiction-like in places (though it’s difficult for me to explain why and how).
The book started slowly, and its use of point of view and time foreshadowing took some getting used to. Nevertheless, what seemed a handicap actually became one of the book’s virtues when it allowed it to show Margaret’s character change over time. Personally, as a reader and as a writer, I love flashing about and revelling in period and sensual detail. This is a problem in my own writing as I try to tell the reader too much and hit them over the head with the history. Gregory certainly doesn’t do that in this book, though at times the insistence on Margaret’s singular, first-person-present narration makes things deceptively simplistic. In one sense, it’s a good device for getting to know Margaret, while at the same time being aware of the depth of her self-delusion, which grows over time. The eponymous Catherine, Called Birdy was able to bring in ample period detail through the voice of a beset teenaged girl, but there is not this sense of effusion from Gregory in this book. For me, therefore, the start was slow, a little ponderous, and a little too visible.
I didn’t start to get lost in the thread of the plot until the last third, which, admittedly, flew by and kept my interest. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that Richard, Duke of York, had a major role, and I love Richard III, historical, Shakespearean or otherwise. Gregory’s characterization—not that we get much of Richard directly, and she pointedly refuses to weigh in on the spine—interestingly supposes that Richard and Princess Elizabeth were genuinely in love, despite the difference in ages, and despite Richard’s extant, youthful, and affectionate marriage to Anne Neville. What is frustrating is to have the Battle of Bosworth Field told from a bizarre halfway omniscient POV which has nothing to do with Margaret.
Margaret is especially memorable in her holy rages, galvanizing her two most powerful emotional states, her religion and her righteous anger. She invests a great deal emotionally in her son, of course, but her towering, somewhat repetitious treatments of Elizabeth Woodville, Princess Elizabeth, and all the Yorks, make her an unusual female character. Margaret tastes the realities of war far too late, and they do not make her any less determined to put her son on the throne of England, no matter the cost. I found the final few pages to be the most riveting, and did not know—why should I, given I’m familiar only with Shakespeare’s Tudor propaganda?—that it was no certain thing that Richard III should lose on the battlefield, that he was beloved by the people, that Henry was nearly friendless and quite inexperienced, and it was only his importation of Swiss mercenary pike techniques that turned the tide (with, so it is assumed, the participation of the Stanleys).
The transformation from Margaret, particularly devout child through whom godliness was one way of expressing her individualism and superiority, to a woman who could contemplate murdering the Princes in the Tower was the strongest point of the book. Gregory feels certain that Margaret would have been happiest as an abbess in her own nunnery with access to knowledge and power, but her circumscribed life allowed her to express her desire for ascendancy in marriage alliances and through spy networks. Margaret learns the hard way—which is yet illustrative for all of us 21st century gals who may have forgotten how restricted a woman’s role was in the 15th century—that her early marriage into darkest Wales, her loss of innocence, and her difficult pregnancy are just a foretaste of the difficulties foisted upon her sex and class in her era. I found myself somewhat surprised that Gregory did not dwell upon Margaret’s shock on the wedding night—surely these books purport to connect “us” more deeply with the emotions of women of the historical/literary past—but perhaps she has had to describe that aspect of marriage too many times in her previous books.
Gregory presents Margaret as having had only one romantic relationship despite three marriages, that with her son’s uncle Jasper Tudor, which appears to finally have some hope of consummation or at least legitimization in 1485, when Margaret is 42 (positively ancient!). (Meaning there are some repressed love scenes which are enjoyable but not smoldering.) She has what in material/emotional terms is a reprieve in her second husband, Sir Henry Stafford, yet it is a mark of her character that she finds Stafford weak and foolish rather than kind and level-headed. In many ways she is more matched in her third marriage, which Gregory thinks she arranged herself, to Lord Thomas Stanley (a character represented, at least, in Shakespeare). Stanley is, like Cousin Bette, one of those characters you love to read about but whom you would never want to meet.
I am interested to read The White Queen, which looks at the very different fortunes of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret’s great rival.