Too many historical novels are like tapestries: detailed, finely wrought and colorful, but essentially static. Things happen to these needlework queens and kings, courtiers and common folk, but they remain lifeless figures. They put me to sleep.
Philippa Gregory’s fiction keeps me up. Her books resemble films, as accurate as any documentary but thrillingly intimate and eventful as well. A rich, consistently engrossing narrative voice is her preeminent tool, and in THE RED QUEEN, as in her other bestsellers, I felt that the protagonist was right in the room with me, whispering confidences --- so close that I could see the perspiration on her upper lip, the cross around her neck, the gold embroidery on her gown.
This is Book Two of the series Gregory calls The Cousins’ War (the original name for the War of the Roses, which pitted Lancaster against York), and the starring role is played by Lady Margaret Beaufort. A Lancastrian descended from Edward III (and thus in line for the English throne), Margaret soon discovers that her family tree will determine her entire future. This pious and intense child doesn’t see why she can’t become Joan of Arc, or a nun (preferably an abbess), or at least marry for love. But to be strategically “wedded and bedded” is her lot. As her mother puts it in a chilly premarital advisory, “You are a girl: girls have no choice.”
As Margaret matures, she doesn’t lose her fanatical faith, but she transfers it from aspirations to a life of prayer to the more worldly vision of her son as king. Since Margaret’s first husband, Edmund Tudor, is also of royal lineage, their offspring could conceivably rule the land as Henry VII…were it not for the many other aristocratic heads that would have to roll before his was crowned.
That doesn’t deter Margaret. In the next couple of decades, she lies, cheats and conspires her way through two more loveless (and childless) marriages, pretending loyalty to the reigning Yorkist monarchs while fomenting rebellion --- first against Edward IV and his wife, the beautiful commoner Elizabeth Woodville (the protagonist of Gregory’s THE WHITE QUEEN and Margaret’s greatest adversary), and then against his successor, Richard III.
Gregory sets up Elizabeth and Margaret like queens in a chess game, and their stratagems couldn’t be more fascinatingly intricate if they’d been invented out of whole cloth rather than based on the historical record. Elizabeth is blond, ravishing, rather greedy, and reputed to be a witch (in THE WHITE QUEEN she conjures male heirs and convenient storms). Margaret is dark, comely enough but no beauty, disciplined and passionately Catholic. Raging against her rival, Margaret calls Elizabeth’s pride, vanity and ambition “sinful,” while her own desires are “godly” and “righteous” (self-deceptive much?). She clings to her self-image as a latter-day Joan, a Machiavelli masquerading as Mother Teresa.
Any reader familiar with Henry VIII knows that Margaret Beaufort went on to forge one of England’s more enduring royal dynasties --- although Henry VII, admittedly, isn’t as famous as his much-married son. Yet THE RED QUEEN still manages to be suspenseful because it hews so closely to Margaret’s point of view (to her, the outcome is in doubt until the very last page). There is a wicked pleasure in tracking her treasonous schemes while her son waits in safe exile on the continent. She even marries for his sake, taking for her third husband the most opportunistic of men: Thomas, Lord Stanley. He agrees to her offer of marriage as if it were a business proposition, which indeed it is.
And a smart one, since the two-faced Lord Stanley turns out to be the key to the novel’s denouement, when Margaret’s son faces Richard III on Bosworth Field. Gregory writes of the battle so grippingly that it unfolds like an action movie, cruel and exciting. It ends, the victor emerges, and I’m left hungry for a sequel. (Actually, the next book will be more of a prequel: It is about Elizabeth Woodville’s Circe-like mother, Jacquetta.)
Elizabeth, Margaret, Jacquetta --- strong women, all. No surprise there, since Gregory’s agenda is clearly to rescue her gender from historical oblivion. As she said in a recent interview, the feminine side of life largely went unreported by the male historians of the time. Those few women who do emerge in contemporary documents are often ridiculed and condemned for their uppity attempts to wield power, even indirectly.
Margaret herself is a victim of the standard chauvinism of the 1400s. Although she’s not a sympathetic personality --- Freud would have had a field day with this obsessive, repressed woman --- the way she was raised would make anyone hard. Virtually raped by her husband at 12, a mother at 13 (“I have to say I am much less impressed by crucifixion now that I am in childbirth. It is really not possible that anything could hurt more than this”) and separated from her baby a year later so she can marry again, Margaret is, she muses, “a parcel --- taken from one place to another, handed from one owner to another, unwrapped and bundled up at will. …”
THE RED QUEEN and THE WHITE QUEEN cover roughly the same period from different perspectives, and any Gregory enthusiast will want to immerse herself in both. Yet Margaret and Elizabeth, while appearing at first to be opposites, are actually more alike than different: intelligent, resourceful, manipulative, driven. In an age that treated women as a combination of servant and broodmare, they refused to be dismissed or defeated. In the modern world, they might have commanded corporations or countries. But I wouldn’t want to meet either one of them in a dark alley.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011