Historical Fiction review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

The Red Queen is Philippa Gregory's sequel to her enjoyable biography of Elizabeth Woodville, The White Queen. Elizabeth Woodville was the wife of Edward IV and the mother of the twins in the tower who were so famously murdered possibly/probably by their uncle Richard III. It was the War of the Roses, the cousins war. Everyone wanted the king's title, despite the fact that their family, being royal, already had the power.

One of the pleasant things about The White Queen, apart from the happiness of Elizabeth and her husband, was the fantastical element, the blood of a river goddess being said to flow in her veins and which allowed to her sometimes to summon elemental help.

The Red Queen is not a continuation of the story, but a parallel to it. It is about Elizabeth's rival Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII.

In the book, Margaret begins as a young girl obsessed with the idea of being like Joan of Arc. However, as a girl she receives no training whatsoever in anything that would help her achieve this. In fact, she doesn't even seem to realise that she would have to learn, for instance, to ride a horse. Being very young, she thinks her greatness will simply be recognised and she will be a mighty leader. No one, though, even looks at her, never mind recognises anything great in her. She is told what to say, briefly has a nice dress to wear and finds herself married. When she's barely old enough is sent to bear a son for a husband.

It's a strange book to read because the character of Margaret is not particularly likable, and seems that the author didn't like her either. There are many excuses for her: She is young, no one notices her let alone loves her, there's no one to give her kindly advice. She is important the one time she becomes pregnant, but once the child is born she is separated from him, her husband dies, and she has to marry someone else to advance Henry's cause.

Gregory, the author, suggests Margaret should be recognised for her intellectual endeavors, her efforts to get an education in a time when women were not taught anything. However this doesn't really come across in the novel which focuses on Margaret's ambition for power and has little to say about her intellectual efforts. We learn that she translates scriptures and gives out pamphlets to her servants. We don't learn if her servants could read, but we do get the impression that Margaret was just an annoying kind of person.

It might have been a sadder, maybe sweeter story, if it had been about someone who was not brilliant, or even particularly clever, but did yearn for knowledge and did manage to get some despite the obstacles. Instead, it's about a not very clever person who has no thought of the good of the country but encourages war just wants to be able to sign herself with an R for Regina, the queen.

The Red Queen is recommended reading mainly for the depiction of the lot of women in 15thC England.