Review: The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory

You know that feeling that you get when you see the pictures of fast food on the side of the Pizza Hut or the KFC … it looks delicious.  And then you go in and you buy and it looks nothing like the photo and tastes like cardboard.  And then later on you wind up feeling nauseous.  That for me sums up how I feel when I read Philippa Gregory.  Don’t mistake me – I loved The Other Boleyn Girl and indeed I am occasionally mystified about how Gregory could write one book like that one and the rest so ghastly.  I had decided some years ago that I needed to stop reading her books even if they were about the Tudors but recently a certain BBC TV series caught my attention.  I watched the first episode and fell in love … I have seen every episode since and more than that, I have actually sat down every Sunday evening at 9pm because I have been excited to watch them.  That is not something that I do – ever.  I never have a clue when things are going to be shown and as a child of the iPlayer generation, TV fits around my schedule not vice versa.  But I have really enjoyed The White Queen, partly as a nicotine-patch-style substitute for Game of Thrones but also just because there’s an appealing drama there underneath all the ridiculousness.  So, when I spotted a hardback copy of The Red Queen on my mother’s bookshelf, I thought that maybe the time had come to see if Philippa Gregory had raised her game.  She hasn’t.
R to L: White Queen, Kingmaker’s Daughter, Red Queen

It’s an interesting idea, to try and tell the women’s side of The Wars of the Roses or, as Philippa Gregory breathlessly refers to it with her Historical Accuracy hat on, The Cousins’ War.  It’s true that the women had a vital role to play in all the toing and froing.  Lady Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Jacquetta Rivers and Anne Neville inspire the TV series and there are various other women flitting about in the background – including Duchess Cecily who has the most amazing headgear I’ve ever seen.  The TV series has taken a pretty heavy slating which I thought was really unfair – the BBC do not have the same budget as HBO, they are putting together a ten episode costume drama on a fraction of those resources.  I don’t care if somebody can spot a zip in a costume.  I don’t feel the need to throw a tantrum if I spot a drainpipe in the background or if there’s a mobility rail on some steps.  I can see that one of the advantages of doing things from the women’s perspective is that you don’t have to spring to film full blown battle scenes.  I do think that the scene where Elizabeth Woodville gave birth standing up with no blood was pushing things a bit far but I also understand that with so many of her childbirths central to the plot, the writers probably felt that they needed to keep things varied.

The one problem that overshadows the writing and the TV series is the exposition.  Game of Thrones gets by this by having people explain things to each other while having sex – it adds a certain interest.  But the BBC and Philippa Gregory just spit out large chunks of historical factoids in general conversation.  “What’s that Skippy? Queen Elizabeth has called up a massive fog that means that the Earl of Warwick will no longer be able to see clearly to win the battle?  But oh no, that will have grave consequences for Margaret of Anjou and her son and new daughter-in-law trying to land on the south coast!”  There’s an awful lot of telling and not a great deal of showing.  In some ways, I think that in reading The Red Queen, I may even have picked the worst of the series for that.

Margaret Beaufort was a hard-bitten woman.  You only have to look at her portrait to see that this was not someone to go for a pint with.  She was married off at nine, impregnated at twelve and widowed aged thirteen while seven months pregnant.  Married off again to Henry Stafford, widowed again and then married again to Thomas Stanley, more or less for political gain.  She spent most of her life plotting to get her only son on the throne and it is true that she was known for her religious faith.  Her son had to go into exile abroad for many years but when he returned with an army, his mother had done her best to level the playing field for him.  These are all true facts.  Margaret Beaufort had what you might call a Tough Life.  So it’s pretty remarkable that Philippa Gregory manages to write her as such a whiny, infuriating, prissy narcissist.

From what I have gathered, Gregory is covering the same events from different perspectives in this series.  In the TV series, this works out slightly easier with each of the women having their own agenda but none of them being definably wicked.  Here though, it doesn’t really come together.  I wondered for a while if Gregory was actually writing Margaret to seem quite so smackable but she’s got such a fluffy writing style, I don’t actually think it was deliberate.  I get that on paper, Margaret Beaufort is not an romantic heroine as Elizabeth Woodville – she never married for love, she made it pretty clear that she wasn’t even that keen on sex by taking vows as a nun while still married, she seems to have been fairly humourless.  I can even see why Gregory tried to whip up a frankly unconvincing love plot between Margaret and her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor.  But Margaret Beaufort was an amazing woman.  She totally won the Wars of the Roses.  Can’t that be something to write about rather than turning it into a Tudor beauty contest?

It was strange though because while Philippa Gregory puts the soft focus on Margaret Beaufort’s personality, she is simultaneously accusing her of murder.  Gregory is a Richard III apologist … I don’t get this, I really just do not understand it at all.  I am interested in the Tudors, I read a lot about them, I even read awful books like this one but I am open to the fact that they may have done things that weren’t really very nice.  Henry VII definitely did order the death of the young and possibly mentally handicapped Earl of Warwick.  Henry VIII also ordered the death of the Earl of Warwick’s sister when that fine lady was in her sixties and had only ever been loyal, she had also brought up one of his children and offered to do so free of charge after Henry got sick of said child.  Edward VI was a cold fish.  Mary I … well, I think the fact that she has been consigned to history as Bloody Mary kind of explains that one.  Elizabeth I may be remembered as Good Queen Bess but even she could be pretty ruthless when she needed to be.  This does not make me think any the less of them as monarchs.  You had to be able to make the tough choices if you wanted to keep the throne – the ditherers, the dalliers and the doormats were the ones who ended up dying mysteriously in the tower or just comprehensively getting walked all over by their barons.

Killed his nephews.  Accept it.

So when Philippa Gregory through Margaret Beaufort asserts that ‘only a fool’ would believe that Richard III killed his nephews, it irritates me.  Does she think that he was such a kind man that he would not have found it necessary?  His reign was unstable, his claim was shaky and he had people coming at him for his throne on all sides.  The very easiest to get rid of would have been the children in the Tower.  I read Alison Weir’sThe Princes in the Tower over ten years ago and really enjoyed it but agree with the final line of that book – there is only one man who could have ordered the death and that person was Richard III.  For Philippa Gregory to state that anyone who has recognised the facts and drawn a reasonable conclusion is a fool is just plain rude.  If she wants to write a book that says that Elizabeth Woodville managed to swap her second son with another handy peasant child and fool all the people who must have logically met the child at some point or other in his life – fine.  I can suspend my incredulity at that point although I don’t see how the death of an innocent peasant child somehow makes for a happy ending but I do think that the attitude that it ‘must’ have been Margaret Beaufort is just ridiculous.  Yes, she was a harsh woman – but the person who had the princes in his power was Richard III.

Reading Game of Thrones puts a lot of these events in a fresh perspective.  During Robert’s Rebellion, Rhaegar Targaryen’s two children are slaughtered by the Lannisters, an event seen as heinous by many but it was one that King Robert acknowledged as necessary for his own regime’s stability.  The sad truth is that acts such as these, while definitely heinous, were just part of what you had to do if you wanted to keep your throne.  King John actually murdered his own nephew with his bare hands – it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Richard III had his nephews assassinated.  We don’t need to call Richard III a tyrant to admit that he did do some pretty dodgy dealing – taking his nephew’s throne in the first place, telling the court that he wasn’t interested in his wife any more … I could go on.  This historical apologism is pointless – to be honest, I end up feeling that it undermines Richard III to say that he didn’t have the mettle to do what needed to be done.  The fact was that the House of York was too wobbly, they tried to make it work and it just didn’t.  Hence, the Tudor dynasty was born.

mag beaufort
Really good actress.

Anyway – that’s a bit of a sidetrack.  More than anything, The Red Queen is just really badly written.  Philippa Gregory spends a lot of time talking about Margaret Beaufort’s ‘saint’s knees’.  Fine.  Fine.  Whatever.  The actress Amanda Hale in the TV series is able to use this as a sign of Margaret’s detachment from reality and her fanaticism.  Philippa Gregory never really decides whose side she’s on.  Margaret’s bizarre rants about Elizabeth Woodville don’t help either – one minute all the Yorkists are scum and devilish and the next minute she should have been able to marry Edward IV herself, not the scheming roadside tart Elizabeth undsoweiter.  It just doesn’t convince.  The worst bit for me was when Margaret meets her would-be daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York who sweeps her a curtsey that is ‘perfectly’ judged.  Philippa Gregory spends a good paragraph explaining that this curtsey shows that Margaret is in disgrace, that Elizabeth knows things aren’t looking too good for her either, that she may marry Margaret’s son, that she may not want to, blah blah blah blah blah.  Don’t care.  Not listening.  Drifted off to sleep.

Margaret’s horrible behaviour towards her friendly second husband is also pretty well-pitched to make her seem unsympathetic.  She coldly names him coward on different occasions when he will not summon up soldiers for her son, she refuses to bless him when he fights against the Lancastrians.  Again, in the TV series, Amanda Hale is a very talented actress and was able to make Margaret seem far more human.  Even the forgettable love story between her and Jasper Tudor gets a bit of life.  The scene in the final episode where she begs him to run made me quite weepy.  But then, I am a notorious softie.

It’s funny, in the final part of Wolf Hall, Mantel writes Henry VIII going to visit an ill Thomas Cromwell and mentioning his childhood terror of his grandmother Beaufort who would constantly bring up her past as a weapon whenever he seemed in danger of enjoying himself.  Mantel describes Margaret’s death grip on the young Henry’s hand and her frequent comments about how she suffered as a child of thirteen to bring Henry Tudor into the world and the agony of her knees as she prayed.  The figure there is being described second hand and yet she has more vitality than anywhere in this book.  I can picture her, I can believe in her.  The Red Queen is a lifeless piece of work which is on the same level of internet fan fiction – Gregory has tried to dream herself into this woman and it has utterly failed.  So basically, I will probably be saving up for the box set of The White Queen but seriously folks – don’t read Philippa Gregory.  Her writing mings.



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The Red Queen (The Cousins' War, #2) by Philippa Gregory
Published by Touchstone on August 3rd 2010
Pages: 382
ISBN: 1416563725

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory

  1. There's a a red phone box outside my mum's house that's been converted into a tiny library and I went there for a browse last week and picked up the Red Queen. Two pages of leaden prose later the book was back in the phone box. Guess I've been spoiled by the richly written histories of Amanda Weir.

  2. That sounds like a cool idea to use a phone box like that. You're right, on the whole Phiippa Gregory writes total drivel. Do you mean Alison Weir rather than Amanda? Actually I don't really rate Alison Weir as a novelist although she's a very readable historian … Thanks for reading!

  3. I hope the tests/studies are reliable & trustworthy. This finding is also a threat. Let’s hope the truth, whatever it may be, comes out. I maintain my view, either way, that there is more to know, always, beyond what lies in the Bible.

  4. I actually thought ‘The Red Queen’ was very good, so I’m going to write a few lines in defence of it. (I mean, obviously it’s not for everyone and that’s fine, and I can absolutely see how people might not like it; I just want to explain what I see in the book.)

    ‘The Red Queen’ takes a monstrous character and invites the audience to sympathise with her by looking at how she became monstrous. Here’s this strong-minded, ambitious, intelligent child who could have been amazing as an abbess had she been allowed to follow her own path in life. But instead, she has that future taken away from her and gets told, nope, you have to go and make babies for our dynasty, that’s your one job and mission in life and we don’t care how you feel about it… but it’s quite all right that we’re doing this, because this is a really important job. As far as we’re concerned, nothing is more important than our family getting another generation and getting that generation on the throne. So you’re expected to forget your own dreams and go along with that, and shut up about it and like it.

    That’s the message she’s given. She has to give up what’s vitally important to her, and she instead has to endure horrible things when she’s still a child (being raped by her husband so that she can be impregnated, going through a terrible childbirth that nearly kills her), and she’s expected to see the end as important enough to justify the means. So she does. Her family have taken her gifts – her intelligence and strong-mindedness and ambition – and warped them away from the way she wanted to use them and towards the end of putting her son on the throne. And the rest of the book, the ends she goes to while convincing herself it’s justified, are the result. She’s an awful person who is awful because that’s what she was trained into being. I think this is really powerful writing.

    Completely agree that the lines about ‘saint’s knees’ needed to be cut with extreme prejudice, though.

    1. I think that really depends on your perspective on Margaret Beaufort. I do think that Philippa Gregory should seek some therapy about her anti-Tudor hatred – they lived a long time ago and didn’t do anything to her and yet she paints the House of York as blonde, prancing, poetic saints while the Tudors are hulking, sexually-aggressive monsters. It’s really weird.

      The House of York ate itself. They had no loyalty to each other. George Clarence betrayed his brothers so they put him to death. When Edward IV was barely cold in his grave, his other brother turned on his family. Having read a few of Gregory’s books, it’s interesting that she can’t see that and is so anti-Tudor.

      Margaret Beaufort was a dynasty-builder but I don’t think she was a monster. This book, read alongside The White Queen and the White Princess were quite a thought-provoking insight into Philippa Gregory’s really odd worldview. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of plot, it ignores a lot of historical events and the characterisation is very off-kilter and seems mostly designed to humiliate and ridicule a woman who has been dead for 500 years. I’m sorry – I really don’t like Philippa Gregory! Thank you so much for the considered comment though 🙂

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