Thursday, August 05, 2010

Yes, I Bought The Red Queen the First Day It Came Out


In fact, I went shopping for Philippa Gregory's latest novel so early in the morning that Barnes and Noble barely had its display ready! What can I say--I'm a Wars of the Roses novel junkie.

First, despite its title, The Red Queen is not about Margaret of Anjou, but about Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII. (For some reason, no one in the novel ever addresses Margaret as the Countess of Richmond, though records from the time refer to her as such, and she herself seems to be unaware that she holds that title through her first marriage to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. I found this odd, because Margaret as depicted here is not a woman to forget the fact that she has a title.)

Margaret, as those of you who have read the early reviews know, is convinced from early childhood that she is chosen by God to do great things, just like Joan of Arc. When she bears her only child, Henry Tudor, she becomes equally convinced that her God-granted destiny is to put her son on the throne. For those who do not share her conviction--which amounts to just about everyone--Margaret has nothing but scorn.

First, the bad news: there are some odd historical errors here. Gregory pushes the 1469 Battle of Edgecote into 1470, making it the event that restores Henry VI to the throne, and she has Elizabeth Woodville give up the Duke of York before, instead of after, Hastings is executed. (I suppose Gregory might have been following the theory that Hastings was executed on June 20 instead of June 13, but that theory has been discredited for some time.) These chronological errors don't make much difference in the greater scheme of things, but they will distract and annoy anyone who's done more than cursory research into this period. I also found it highly unlikely that Margaret and the other characters would repeatedly exchange letters detailing their treasonous thoughts and schemes, as they do here; they might as well have drawn lines on their necks reading "CUT HERE."

Despite those reservations, I did enjoy this novel. Telling a first-person story through an essentially unlikable narrator is a tough job, and Gregory does it very well here. Margaret's snide remarks about the other characters made me laugh out loud at several points, one of my favorites being her comment about Katherine Woodville: "a girl born and bred only to raise hens in Northampton." There are some rather droll moments, such as when the widowed Margaret canvasses her possible future husbands and sets her cap at Richard, Duke of Gloucester, only to find that the unsuspecting prospective groom has foiled her plans by marrying Anne Neville. Despite being seen through the eyes of the obtuse and insensitive Margaret, several of the supporting characters are quite sympathetic, particularly Henry Stafford, Margaret's sardonic, war-weary second husband, and Jasper Tudor, Margaret's loyal brother-in-law. Henry Stafford's death was quite moving, and Jasper's scenes with his baby nephew were quite sweet. Margaret's cynical, opportunistic third husband, Thomas Stanley, is the perfect foil for Margaret, without being a cardboard villain. He did much to keep the latter third of the novel, which recounts the very familiar events of 1483 to 1485, moving along at a brisk pace. Elizabeth of York makes a brief appearance, but one that's long enough to inform the reader that she is no fool. As for Margaret herself, although I don't share Gregory's view of the historical Margaret Beaufort, I didn't find her characterization here implausible, grossly unfair, or one-dimensional, as I have in some novels where Margaret is depicted as a fiend who does everything but cackle, "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"

All in all, I found this a diverting and enjoyable read about a woman who's been relatively neglected in historical fiction.

9 comments:

Ragged Staff said...

Glad you liked it, Susan. Certainly the reviews I've read so far suggest it's a better book than the White Queen.

Marie said...

I am glad that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I love it when a book comes along that portrays another side to a popular story.

Miss Moppet said...

Thanks Susan for a balanced review -and one that will be useful to me if I do read the book, as I know comparatively little about the period.

trish wilson said...

Poor old PG. She does seem to have an even worse case of F&M than Starkers and as for her timing – oh dear. This is the second time within a year she has brought out a book on a certain historical lady who as it just so happens happened to the subject of my research within the few weeks prior to publication. Publication isn’t due here for another fortnight a matter that grates with me - why the US first and not the UK - but there’s always a way round if one knows the ropes and this could be the rope that hangs PG.

I have no further comment to make since it might well amount to a contravention of the Obscene Publications Act.

Meghan said...

I was wondering if you also found the Joan of Arc thing a bit strange - as far as I've been taught, English people didn't really think all that much about her yet, and if they did it was only as a witch. It's unlikely that a ten year old English girl would have regarded her as a heroine. French, maybe, but not English. I can see how it works for the story but it had me perplexed right off.

I also didn't really understand all the fuss about her breeding a potential heir to the throne - surely the Yorkists were all ahead of her in the succession because the Beauforts weren't even legally allowed to inherit anyway. And the king already had a child. This I have less issue with though, as it adds some drama to the story. In fact both of these add to the story, so they probably annoyed only me!

Let me know what you think if you get a chance. =)

Otherwise I'm enjoying the book though - I never really understand those changes that don't actually make a difference, but at least the read is fun!

Meghan @ <a href="http://medievalbookworm.com</a>Medieval Bookworm</a>

Susan said...

I might have to read this book. Your review sounds like this might be one of the better PG books (Did not like the one about Mary Queen of Scots)
Susan A

Kathryn said...

I'll probably get round to reading this one sometime - sounds like it's a lot better than White Queen, fortunately!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, all! I did like it better than The White Queen. I started The Other Queen, but didn't finish it--that could have been my mood at the time.

Meghan, I did find the Joan of Arc fixation a little strange for an English girl, as well as Margaret's setting her sights on the throne for her son from day one, especially at the time when Edward of Lancaster was alive. But in the context of the novel they didn't bother me terribly, given Margaret's personality.

zquilts said...

After the relative bruhaha over the WHite Queen I find this high praise. I'm off to order. I might enjoy this as an audible choice .. hummmm