Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory: A review

As a child, Margaret Beaufort of the House of Lancaster was obsessed with Joan of Arc. She was convinced that she was called by God to be England's Joan. In the War of the Roses, the cousins' war, she was devoted to the cause of the Lancasters because, obviously (to her child's mind), they were the ones anointed by God to rule. The Yorks were usurpers who were to be resisted unto death. But, of course, it wouldn't really be "unto death" because God was on the Lancasters' side and so they would, without a doubt, prevail.

Margaret's dream was to devote her life to study and the worship of God. At the age of twelve, her mother disabused her of that dream by informing her that the only purpose, the only duty, of a Lancaster girl was to breed a Lancaster heir, a boy who could sit on the throne. And so, Margaret would be married to Edmund Tudor and she would live in Wales and there conceive and bring forth the next generation.

Margaret's marriage to Edmund was a nightmare - a twelve-year-old married to a man in his twenties. There was no tenderness in the relationship. As far a Edmund understood, sex was rape. Thus, every night the child Margaret was subjected to rape. Alone in the world, with no one to take her part, Margaret had no choice but to submit.

Fourteen months later, at the age of fourteen, after two days of agony during which she learned that her mother had instructed the midwives that if the child she carried was a boy and there was a choice between saving the baby or saving the mother, the mother was to be sacrificed, Margaret gave birth to a Tudor/Lancaster son. By that time, her brute of a husband was already dead, just another victim of the cousins' war. At fourteen, Margaret was a mother and a widow.

An unattached woman was too valuable a commodity to be allowed to languish and so, immediately, Margaret's mother contracted another marriage for her, to Sir Henry Stafford. After her year of mourning for Tudor was up, she was sent to marry Stafford. Her son was left in the care of his uncle, Jasper, Edmund's twin brother. From that time on, Margaret was never able to spend more than a few days at a time with him. He grew up essentially a stranger to her, although Jasper kept his promise to make sure that the boy, Henry, knew of his mother.

Henry Stafford was a very different kind of husband. He was gentle and kind. He encouraged Margaret's questing mind and gave her books to read and time to contemplate and pray. He was a man of peace who loved his home and cared for his tenants. He stayed as far as he could from the cousins' war. Margaret despised him as a coward.

Now, Margaret had a new obsession: To see her son on the throne of England. She constantly schemed and planned to make that happen. When the Yorks were triumphant and Jasper had to take young Henry and go into exile in Brittany, Margaret continued to work to make it possible for them to return and for Henry to eventually claim the throne. Every action that she took, every breath, every prayer (and there were plenty of those) was devoted to bringing that about. She prayed to God and to Joan for guidance. Amazingly, every heavenly directive that she received was in perfect accord with her own obsession of making her son king. Funny how that works.

Unfortunately, the thoughtful pacifist Stafford was not able to stay out of the wars forever and eventually he, too, became another victim, leaving Margaret a widow once again. By that time, she was also an orphan, her mother having died. This left her free to seek a marital alliance on her own, which she promptly did, contracting a loveless, sexless marriage with Lord Thomas Stanley, a man she saw as a likely co-conspirator in her grand design.

This was actually quite a fascinating book. In spite of the sympathy evoked by Margaret's early history, she turns into a thoroughly unlovable, unlikable, un-self-aware, venal, grasping, God-obsessed, jealous, power-obsessed woman whose only goal in life is to see her son on the throne and to be able to be addressed herself as "My Lady, the King's Mother" and to sign her name "Margaret Regina: Margaret R." She achieves her goal and Henry Tudor becomes Henry VII, but at what a cost!

Philippa Gregory did a good job of bringing Margaret Beaufort to life, as indeed she did with Elizabeth Woodville, The White Queen. Having now read both accounts, I can only marvel at what both women achieved in an era when women were totally powerless and were considered property of the men in their families, at least on paper. To be able to rise above such a system was an amazing achievement. Perhaps it took a single-minded obsession to be able to do that. Interesting women, but I don't think I'd want to sit down to tea with either of them.

4 comments:

  1. Great. How about linking in to Books You Loved: September? Cheers

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    1. Will do, Carole. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. I found the empowerment of women in these books interesting too. Your review was really cool, I enjoyed it. I've also reviewed this book if you have time please check it out....

    http://thehouseofliterarymirrors.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/red-queen-by-philippa-gregory.html

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    1. Thanks, Beth. I will definitely visit your link.

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