I’ve been a fan of Philippa Gregory for a long time; i watched the dramatisation of A Respectable Trade (link is to a list of her books on Amazon) when i was pregnant with Fran, i think and i must have already read it by then and i’ve enjoyed her Tudor Court books enormously. I don’t go a bundle on some of her other books, The Wise Woman didn’t do it for me at all and i haven’t got into the Wideacre books, but she wrote two great books about the Tradescants, who collected the original kernal of the Ashmolean Museum and were great favourites of the Stuart kings and the Dukes of Buckingham.
The Other Boleyn Girl has been around for a while now and it brings to life the characters of Henry VIIIs court in an extraordinary fashion. I’m a survivor of the driest A Level Tudor history teaching imaginable; anyone who knows me ought to find it hard to believe that i regularly fell asleep in the lessons, hated the essays and didn’t revise for the exam, earning myself a D in what is easily my best and favourite subject, while i got A’s and B’s in everything else. By the time i finished with Mrs Armstrong, i never wanted to see a history book again but these books but colour to the characters and weave politics, family ties, fashion, sex, vanity, power and ambition together brilliantly. I wrote notes a plenty on Thomas Howard (utter, savage bastard with power complex) as a 17 year old, but he has become a person with these books. I studied Henry VIII for 2 years but we avoided mentioning wives and sex (not suitable for nice private school girls) – the power of Philippa Gregory’s writing is that she brings to life the “butterfly that stamped” reality of Tudor times; how ripples that began as a flirt, a look, a dalliance in a bedroom while people turned a blind eye could end with a Queen with her head on the executioners block. She has court life taped perfectly; powerful uncles, a king who began as a spoiled boy and ends as a savage, stinking, corpulant serial killer, driven in madness as much by his constipation as by his insatiable lust and inability to grow old gracefully.
This week i’ve read The Constant Princess and The Boleyn Inheritance. The first tells a simple and delicate tale about Katharine of Aragon and her childhood on the battlefields of Spain, then her brief marriage to Prince Arthur to whom she was betrothed at 3 years old and then the fight she weathered to become Queen of England, married to Henry. It is slight in many ways, tender, heartbreaking and thought provoking. How different England might have become had Arthur not died. We might still be a Catholic Country, there might still be working monasteries and nunneries in country places; there would probably be a lot less English Heritage ruins to visit!
The Boleyn Inheritance tells the tale of Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn (Anne’s sister-in-law) and really details, through their eyes and stories, the utter madness that took hold of English nobility as Henry became more savage, more convinced of his own power, tore through wives, had people mercilessly executed on a whim. No one was safe from his eye and his conviction that everyone plotted against him. It is fascinating in many ways and gives a voice and character to 2 of the wives who tend to be glossed over in history; given that everyone knows the rhyme, she manages to somehow keep the story gripping to the end as the horrified katherine Howard is hauled fainting with fear to the block. She was only 16.
What i like about Philippa Gregory is that she writes with the authority of someone who has researched carefully but she is comfortable with injecting fictional supposition into what she writes. In doing so, her characters come alive and her readers get to question what they know or suppose about the people whose names are known best with the taint of the spin doctors of the time. And what i like even more, is that she writes an authors note at the end to tell you what is fact, what is her own fiction and why she added the fictions she did. I find that immensely honest and revealing.
When Fran is a bit older, i hope she’ll come back to “the bad king” and want to know more about him and the life he led, just as she did when she was 5. When she does, i’ll be giving her these books with my blessing and i very much hope they will open up a doorway into that Tudor world for her, so that if she ever chooses to read a text book too, Thomas Howard will still hang like an onimous storm crow in the background, Anne Boleyn will flirt and tease, enjoying the discomfort of her surplanted sister and Katherine Howard will still giggle and play, unaware of her danger, brightening up the lines of text and making them come alive.