Rating: 3 stars
This isn’t a work of great literature, but it is an entertaining read. Gregory clearly puts lots of research into the background to her historical novels, if this is anything to go by. I don’t know nearly as much as I should about the Wars of the Roses, and I had to keep checking online to see which Edward and which Richard was which, and to find out the significance of the battles mentioned in the novel.
Margaret Beaufort seems a little priggish at first, but she soon develops an admirable strength of character when she is given in marriage to Henry VI’s half brother Edmund Tudor and subjected to conjugal rape from the age of 12 until she becomes pregnant. She knows her duty, and when Edmund is captured, she takes charge of her household, protecting her unborn child and future king to the best of her ability.
She is still innocent of the facts of life, and childbirth is a mystery to her. She has a feisty attitude, though.
I have to say I am much less impressed by crucifixion now that I am in childbirth. It is really not possible that anything could hurt more than this. I grieve for the suffering of Our Lord, of course. But if He had tried a bad birth He would know what pain was.
More worrying is how little her midwives and doctor seem to know about childbirth. They toss her in a blanket to try to force the baby out and then are surprised when she throws up.
Even better is when Margaret’s own mother sends orders to let her daughter die if the child is a boy and a choice has to be made about who gets to survive this difficult labour. Life was very black and white for the royals back then, wasn’t it? As Margaret comments earlier in the book
…if it were not for Joan of Arc, I would think that girls are completely useless.
The baby arrives safely, though, and then more fun facts about parenting in the 15th century are revealed.
The swaddling cloth is wrapped around his head and chin to keep his neck straight, and it finishes with a little loop on the top of his head. The poor women use the loop to hook their babies up on a roof beam when they are cooking, or doing their work…
Don’t tell Katie Hopkins, or she’ll be advocating that all women do this in order to get back to work sooner.
These early chapters were the most interesting part of the book for me. From here onwards the book became a chronicle of how to put a man on the throne. Giving birth to the future king is the making of Margaret, though. She finds her voice and starts to put a plan in motion, to get her son safely through childhood and onto the throne of England. She is nothing if not dogged in her determination to see her son crowned king. Sometimes she is a little too dogged, too blind in her devotion to Lancaster and in her faith in God, but she learns that resourcefulness is as good a tool as zeal in getting what you want.
The book is very much an imagining of what might have gone on behind the history that is recorded for this period. It is an imagining of a woman’s experience. Some of it seemed a little far fetched. The romance at arms length between Margaret and Jasper, for instance. Margaret at times behaved inconsistently. Pacing the book by significant battles and other events worked well. It didn’t get bogged down in telling us about the probable mundanity of Margaret’s life in between the battles and changes at the top of the royal tree that impacted most on her and her son.
By the end of the book, I didn’t know what to make of Margaret. On the one hand she was a determined woman who wanted to control her own life, who bucked against the restraints her society placed on women, who educated herself. A woman to admire, then. On the other hand, she was pretty horrible about her rival women. There was no solidarity there, no sense of a shared battle against the men who ruled their lives. She was monomaniacal about what she thought of as her destiny, and that made me dislike her.
While the novel didn’t set me on fire, it didn’t put me off trying more of Philippa Gregory’s books, either. Is that damning with faint praise?