|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.
|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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Published by Touchstone on August 3rd 2010
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