Monday, 20 June 2011
Philippa Gregory – The Red Queen
There appear to be no end of historical characters that Philippa Gregory can write about. I've just finished 'The Red Queen', selected this month for our book club. I always thought that Henry VII was an interesting character, but this book is about his mother, about whom I knew nothing. I had hoped to get insight into the character of Henry, but it turns out that he and his mother were separated when he was quite young and throughout the book she is only able to keep in touch through occasional visits and letters. The visits were almost always under the noses of hostile supervisors or other interested parties and the letters were frequently secret, and presumably destroyed, so the ones quoted in the book were probably invented by the author.
Did I learn much about Henry? No. The book does give an interesting picture of a pathological, almost deranged, upper class society at the time of the Wars of the Roses, in which back stabbing is as common as front stabbing. Lots of stabbing anyway. There seems to have been a fascinating obsession and reverence for regal bloodlines, which is certainly not justified by the abilities or morals of the various royals in the book.
The reader knows throughout the book, that it is going to end on Bosworth Field, or somewhere nearby, if we are to believe the most modern archeologists. A battle that kills Richard and establishes Henry as king. A battle that Henry should have lost if his mother's third husband and not changed sides at the last moment.
The thing I have not really got to the bottom of is why I keep turning the pages. What is it that Philippa Gregory is doing that drives the story along? Many of the characters are despicable, or boring, or driven by motives that would lead me to cross the road if I met them in the street. The fact that Henry's mother is proud of having calluses on her knees from spending so much time praying makes me despise the woman. Various advisors, husbands etc. point out many times that although she listens to God a lot, she only hears what she wants to hear. Hardly a model of piety, more a deluded megalomaniac. People like that have caused a lot of trouble over the years and much bloodshed too, what's more there are still plenty like that hard at it today. They never learn.
There isn't exactly a character arc either; she retains both her worldview and her habits and beliefs throughout the story. Anyone asking, 'when will she learn?' is going to be disappointed.
So how the hell did Henry turn out to be a good king? I recall from doing history at school that the country was almost bankrupt when he took over and riven by many years of war. Yet this lad, who had spent much of his life in France, somehow united the country, created stability and established the modern nation state, or at least laid the platform on which Henry VIII and Elizabeth did that. Where did he get that from? as far as we can tell from this book, not from his intolerant and bigoted mother, or from his uncle who had similar single-minded view of the world. Maybe the very fact that he was kept distant from her, dispossessed and struggling for much of his early life, was the key to moulding someone who had the nerve to say, let's do it differently.
It could be that the book is an argument in favour of boarding schools, and against the nuclear family, yet on the surface it appears to value blood lines, or bloody lines anyway, above everything else. One could argue that Gregory is using the traditional vehicle of the unreliable narrator to get across a very different point, but I don't think I kept turning the pages because of subliminal social comment, or because I wanted to see this awful woman get her comeuppance, after all, we know from the start that she ends up on the winning side.
I am left with having to admit that Philippa Gregory has mastered a writing style that somehow keeps the pages turning, even though the characters are unattractive and the end of the story is known from the start. In effect she has dispensed with suspense, plot or character as the driving forces in the novel. What then is left?
I think she is very good at knowing just how long each little subplot and story needs to be, how much detail to include and how to balance dialogue with narrative and internal voice with action. It is a style driven forward by immediate events and short horizons. At every stage the big picture looks hopeless, so the characters concentrate on surviving till tomorrow and trusting to God and blood lines for everything else. Jeopardy is clearly a driving force, except that we know the ultimate outcome. We don't identify with the characters because we think they might die, though the various dangers do create a certain amount of curiosity as to exactly how they will get out of each situation.
Philippa Gregory has obviously done everything she can to stick to what is known about both the events and characters and also to use famous historic unknowns to her advantage. No one has ever been sure who killed the princes in the tower, so she makes sure that all the main characters have a motive. I was however, confused by several references to the possibility that one of the princes might have been replaced by a double. Tough on the double, but what happened to the real one? That idea just gets lost towards the end of the book, or is it in a sequel? How many more of these do I need to read?