Philippa Gregory signs my copy of The Red Queen. Photo: Meneesha Govender
Philippa Gregory signs my copy of The Red Queen. Photo: Meneesha Govender

Novels offer different views

By Meneesha Govender Time of article published Dec 22, 2010

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For someone who is just entering into the historical world of the English monarchy, the works of Philippa Gregory are a great starting point. And she tells her stories from a woman’s perspective, one largely ignored by male historians, writes Meneesha Govender.

Philippa Gregory is probably best known for her novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, which was also made into a major film starring famous actresses Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson.

It was a fascinating novel about the sister of the infamous Ann Boleyn that had me gripped from the very beginning.

I have to admit my knowledge of English history is at best murky, but Gregory’s novel inspired me to learn more.

Maybe it is her portrayal of the women of the time, or her easy writing style, or the fact that she makes historical fact come alive – her novels are very accessible.

The Red Queen was not as exciting as The Other Boleyn Girl. But I think this is largely because of the protagonist Margaret Beaufort herself – an overly-pious, conniving, passionless egomaniac who is driven only by her ambition to install her son as the next king of England.

After writing many novels about the York dynasty, Gregory turns her attention to the Lancastrians in this novel.

And if you feel you are out of your depth already with all these references to dynasties, do not fear – the novel is best remembered for the story it tells rather than the historical time in which it is narrated.

In The Red Queen, Gregory continues her Wars of the Roses series (which she calls the Cousins War) with a fictional biography of Margaret, the grandmother of King Henry VIII.

The wars between the houses of York and Lancaster ran sporadically over a period of 30 years.

They ended when Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor, killed Richard III in 1485 and married his niece, joining the two families.

The Red Queen takes as its point of departure these historical facts. But it is more about the women of the time, about which very little is written. This novel is the second in the Cousins War series.

The White Queen is about the female head of the House of York, Elizabeth Woodville. It is her daughter who Henry eventually marries.

Both novels cover the same period in history but from opposing perspectives.

However, while Elizabeth is portrayed in a more sympathetic light, Margaret isn’t.

We are introduced to her as a pious young girl who sees herself as chosen by God to be the next Joan of Arc.

Her wish is to join the church and do God’s work, but her position in society means her life path has already been determined by her cousin, the king.

One can only feel compassion for her at the very beginning of her life when her femaleness and family ties set her on a path that eventually leads to her cold and callous disposition.

I cannot help but feel that if she were allowed to follow her heart and become a nun, the course of history might have been very different.

Instead she is forced into a brutal, loveless marriage at the age of 12 to Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of mad King Henry VI.

Throughout their marriage, he rapes her repeatedly as he strives to produce a potential heir to the throne.

Edmund dies very early but not before she is pregnant by him and at the age of 14 gives birth to her son under horrific circumstances, knowing that her mother has told the midwives to save her son even if it means her death.

Margaret is married off to another English lord, who treats her as a father would a daughter, but who she eventually despises as a weak man who betrays her in the worst possible way when he joins forces with the House of York.

When he is killed in battle, she marries the treacherous Thomas Stanley, with whom she makes a pact to ensure her son will have the best chances to ascend the throne.

The rest of the novel is about how she conspires to achieve this goal.

I think it’s largely because of Margaret herself, but The Red Queen is not a novel that Gregory will be best remembered for.

Nevertheless, it is a remarkable take on a woman who in the end conspires to be called “My Lady, the King’s Mother” and signs her name “Margaret R” – a title reserved only for the queen herself. - Daily News

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