I can’t say I’ve read a whole lot of historical fiction – I’ve only read a handful, the bulk of which I consider to be the “popular” ones, which is to say they are not the best exemplars of the category out there – but it seems I have a love-hate relationship with the genre. The historical novels I’ve read are indeed like tapestries: detailed, finely wrought and colorful, but essentially static. Things happen to these needlework queens and kings, courtiers and common folk, but most of the time they do not make things happen. They remain lifeless figures. And the languorous tendency in which their lives are narrated – and yes, there are parts of their historical lives that you sometimes just can’t be bothered to be interested in – naturally ought to put you to sleep.
This one, however, kept me up. This is my first Philippa Gregory, though I have previously seen the film adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl. And, what can I say: this novel almost resembles a film, attempting to be as “accurate” as any documentary but without being detached or dispassionate. A rich, consistently engrossing narrative voice is her preeminent tool, and in The Red Queen 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 crucifix around her neck, the gold embroidery on her gown.
Unfortunately this is book two of the series Gregory calls The Cousins’ War, 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.”
Margaret 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.”
As Margaret grows up, it seemed to me that her fanatical faith had intensified into a psychosis, but she sublimates it from aspirations to a life of prayer to the worldlier, almost Machiavellian 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.
The result is that Elizabeth and Margaret are set up 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. 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.
The Red Queen 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 quite intrigued about the saga’s prequel and sequel.