The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory

>> Sunday, December 26, 2010

TITLE: The Red Queen
AUTHOR: Philippa Gregory

PAGES: 387
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

SETTING: 15th century England and Wales
TYPE: Historical fiction
SERIES: Second in The Cousins' War series, following The White Queen, but it stands alone.

REASON FOR READING: Book club choice for December

The second book in Philippa's stunning new trilogy, The Cousins War, brings to life the story of Margaret Beaufort, a shadowy and mysterious character in the first book of the series - The White Queen - but who now takes centre stage in the bitter struggle of The War of the Roses. The Red Queen tells the story of the child-bride of Edmund Tudor, who, although widowed in her early teens, uses her determination of character and wily plotting to infiltrate the house of York under the guise of loyal friend and servant, undermine the support for Richard III and ultimately ensure that her only son, Henry Tudor, triumphs as King of England. Through collaboration with the dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret agrees a betrothal between Henry and Elizabeth's daughter, thereby uniting the families and resolving the Cousins War once and for all by founding of the Tudor dynasty.
The Red Queen tells the story of Margaret Beaufort, the Lancastrian heiress who was the mother of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Completely dismissed by everyone as not being worth anything beyond her capacity to pass on her bloodlines, and married off to a man twice her age at barely 13, Margaret devotes her whole life to plotting and planning to put her son on the throne.

Philippa Gregory has been on my "should check out this author" list for a while now, but I've kind of been off historical fiction for the last few years, so who knows how long it would have taken me to pick up one of her books if this one hadn't been chosen for my book club. It would have been a huge shame, because The Red Queen is absolutely fantastic.

Whether you like this or not will depend on whether you need to like the main character in order to like a book. If you do, then maybe this will not be for you, because Margaret is a real piece of work.

I freely admit that I was predisposed to like the other side (the Yorks) better, a product of having read several pro-Ricardian books over the years (see, for instance, Josephine Tey's wonderful The Daughter of Time and the very funny The Murders of Richard III, by Elizabeth Peters in my archives). Even if I hadn't, however, I think just from this book I would have still felt the same way. And I don't think the author would be too surprised.

I very much sympathised with Margaret at the beginning of the book, when she gets sent out "like a parcel", as she puts it, and married off (and bedded) at barely 13. Yes, she's an insufferable and sanctimonious little twit even then, but she's just a little girl, and I couldn't help but completely feel her fear and anger and helplessness at knowing that she has absolutely no value to anyone, other than as a means of passing on her bloodlines.

She grows up though, and by the way, Gregory does really well in showing, purely through her narration, the change in Margaret from child to grown-up. The thing is, she grows up into a remarkably unpleasant grownup.

Since we see everything (except a couple of battle scenes) from Margaret's point of view, there's no better way to show what she's like than through her own words. This is Margaret on Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner wife of Edward of York:

"I take up my rosary and pray again. The words are for the safety of my king; but I cannot think of anything but my jealousy that a woman, far worse born than me, far worse educated than me, without doubt less beloved by God than me, should be able to run to her husband with joy and show him their son and know he will fight to defend him. That a woman such as her, clearly not favored by God, showing no signs of grace (unlike me), should be Queen of England. And that, by some mystery—too great for me to understand—God should have overlooked me."
Lovely woman, eh? The issue of religion is quite an interesting one. I've read many medievals in which the characters religiousness felt completely alien... basically, their religiousness was all-encompassing, a prism through which they saw everything and affected everything they were. I get the feeling that might be quite an accurate way of portraying the way things were back then, but I had no problem with Gregory taking a different tack. Because while Margaret was extremely religious, and convinced that doing God's will was the most important thing in her life, Gregory's portrayal of her is that of a woman I could perfectly well meet here and now. At one point, one of her husbands tells it to her like it is, and makes the point that she might tell herself that she does what God wants, but funny how God always tells her to do what she wants to do, anyway. He never points her in any direction that doesn't involve acquiring more power and wealth. She has no answer to that, but neither does it give her more than a twinge of concern.

There's one particular scene which shows her character and the nature of her faith exactly. She's contemplating whether to order something really horrific to be done, and asks for God's guidance on what to do. She asks for a sign. But clever Margaret doesn't ask for a sign to indicate whether she should do it, she asks for one in case she shouldn't! And then she waits for quite a long time (she's conscientious that way), and when nothing happens, she can go and do whatever she wants to do with a clear conscience and the certainty that God approves of her plans. Classic!

It's hard to imagine someone could be more deluded about their own nature as Margaret is. She's convinced of her piety and of the fact that she's a good, generous person, but she's unable to put herself into anyone else's shoes. And in some cases, in her most monumentally self-involved moments, she was truly alien. I wanted to strangle her when she so derisively speaks about those London merchants who betray their true King just because Edward of York "...makes peace throughout the land, and because he makes the courts of law work so that a man can have justice". Yeah, nothing, that. From my 21st century perspective, I find it insane that anyone could then go "Well, however great he is, he's still the rightful King and it would be traitorous to support anyone else".

But then again, there seemed to be plenty of people even then that thought just like I would have and decided to support Edward for all the right reasons. Margaret's second husband is one of them, and her treatment of him didn't particularly endear me to him. He seems like quite a decent, thoughtful bloke, who yearns for peace. And yet she thinks him a coward and undermines him and plots behind his back. I think the reason this annoyed me so much was that I identified with Stafford quite a lot. He doesn't particularly care who's on the throne, as long as this person delivers peace. He doesn't presume to know what God wants, as Margaret does, he seems to care more about the lives of his tenants and people than about whether the person God wants is on the throne. In fact, out of Margaret's second and third husbands, neither is an unthinking loyalist, but they are extremes. Henry Stafford may be ready to betray the King and ally himself with a challenger, but he does so only after some very careful considerations of what's best for his country and with a heavy heart. Thomas Stanley, on the other hand, cares only about what's best for him, and insists on being on always having a foot on each side. I thought having them both in there, one after the other, provided some excellent balance.

Anyway, back to Margaret, even though I didn't like her, and wanted things to go badly for her (I cheered when, close to the end, her future daughter-in-law delivers a really classic set-down), I believed in her and enjoyed every minute of reading about her. Her characterisation was almost perfect. The only bit I didn't find completely convincing was that Gregory kind of glosses over Margaret learning to plot and plan. For a long time at the beginning of the book she's a child and can only hold on for dear life and just go with what others plan for her, but then suddenly she just mentions in passing that she went behind her husband's back and wrote to Edward of York's brother, who'd started a rebellion, offering her alliance. And she only gets better and better. Just how did she learn to participate in court intrigue so well. Who taught her? These were dangerous times, you would have thought a naive conspirator would be in trouble quite quickly. How on earth did she become an expert? That is never explained.

Much as I relished Margaret's POV, I also really appreciated the couple of bits where we get a different one. These were during battles which we needed to know about and which Margaret would obviously know nothing about. I found them very impressively done. The battle of Towton, for instance, was absolutely horrible but absolutely amazing at the same time. I'd seen a BBC programme about it just a few weeks earlier, and even with recreations and images of crushed skulls in common pits, this wasn't as successful in showing the horror as Gregory was.

All in all, a brilliant book. I enjoyed it so much that I didn't want to leave this world at all. I wasn't quite ready to start The White Queen (although I will, and soon), so I went for a reread of The Daughter of Time (the plot in one sentence: police detective stuck convalescing in hospital investigates the accusations against Richard III with the help of a historian). It was the perfect thing to do, as it covered some of the events here from a completely different perspective. Margaret doesn't appear that much, but there is a very interesting look at the murders of the little Princes in the Tower. Gregory and Tey ascribe the responsibility to the same side, but their theories are quite different. I kind of instinctively side more with Tey's, but that's mostly because she shows me her research... for instance, Gregory has rumours going round London of the death of the princes long before Richard's death, but Tey's characters find no evidence of any rumours at all at the time, and they discuss exactly what they looked at (I know, it sounds dead boring, but I swear, it's not). Anyway, read both, they're well worth it!



Post a Comment

Blog template by

Back to TOP