This week I tore through the newest novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Philippa Gregory.
A lot of other people apparently did too. Her new book The Red Queen started its published life in the number two slot on the N.Y. Times Book Review list of hardcover best-sellers, just below the third Stieg Larsson book. Meanwhile, her prior novel The White Queen is number 22 on the Times’ paperback trade best-seller list.
Gregory certainly has sales. But I don’t think she’s gotten the literary attention she deserves. Like Stephen King for so many years, I suspect that her popularity leads critics to assume that her work is hackneyed or formulaic.
Gregory does a superb job at personalizing history, writing about the sweeping conflicts of the Plantagenet and Tudor courts through the eyes of women. If you gave me a traditional history text listing all the Henrys and Edwards and Richards who took the throne, and the Warwicks and Nevilles and Buckinghams who plotted against each other, my eyes would glaze over. But when Gregory carries you into the life of a young girl in court circles, whose marriage(s) are part of those power struggles, it all becomes vivid and makes sense.
Her books are history, not romance, despite their popularity among romance fans. They’re all about “who gets the throne” rather than “who gets the man.”
But they are history through women’s eyes. She shows the terror of being married off for political reasons at the age of 14, the frustration of being an ambitious woman stuck in a rural estate during times of upheaval, the crushing pressure of being a queen unable to produce a male heir to the throne.
Gregory and her publisher never use the “f word.” But her books are deeply feminist in that they call attention to the lives and experiences of women, which have too often been ignored by male chroniclers of the great and powerful.
She’s not a showy writer. She’s not someone who stops you in your tracks with the brilliance of an unexpected metaphor. But she’s psychologically nuanced and has an eye for small details, both of historical setting and human interactions. For me, a good historical novel needs grit and garbage as well as gowns and armor.
Here is Gregory writing in The Red Queen about 14-year-old Margaret Beaufort, newly married for political reasons to a distant cousin in a castle in the hinterlands of Wales:
I flush and look down at my plate, heaped with overcooked and unrecognizable bits of game. They hunt better than they farm in Wales, and every meal brings some skinny bird or beast to the table in butchered portions. I long for fast days when we have only fish, and I impose extra fast days on myself to escape the sticky mess of dinner. Everyone stabs what they want with their dagger from a common plate, and sops up the gravy with a hunk of bread. They wipe their hands on their breeches and their mouths on their coat cuffs. Even at the high table we are served our meat on tranchers of bread that are eaten up at the end of the meal. There are no plates laid on the table. Napkins are obviously too French; they count it their patriotic duty to wipe their mouths on their sleeves, and they all bring their own spoons as if they were heirlooms, tucked inside their boots. (P. 29)
Now, with The Red Queen, Gregory’s done something new (for her) and impressive. She’s built the entire novel around an unsympathetic, power-hungry character who shows no self-awareness. Fourteen-year-old Margaret’s childish piety and family loyalty harden into an unquestioning conviction that God has destined her son for the throne of England. She’s kind of a 16th century English version of an Al-Qaeda partisan. If Margaret Beaufort didn’t murder the two little princes in the palace, according to Gregory, she sure as heck would have done so if she had the chance.
And Gregory pulls it off. I liked Margaret Beaufort, and I was appalled by Margaret Beaufort. I kept reading to see if she would triumph, and also with a horrific fascination to see the train wreck that would happen with her triumph. It’s not an easy thing to build a successful novel around a character whom neither you nor your readers like.
But she does it.
I would love to see a New York Times Magazine profile of Gregory, like the ones they’ve done of Margaret Drabble and James Patterson.