[Henry VII has died; his son has succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII; narrator Lady Margaret Pole has been summoned to the court, returned to favour with the new regime]
Dressed in my new gown of pale Tudor green, wearing a gable hood as heavy as that of the princess, I walk into the presence chamber of the King of England and see the prince, not on his throne, not standing in a stiff pose under the cloth of estate as if he were the portrait of majesty, but laughing with his friends strolling around the room, with Katherine at his side, as if they were a pair of lovers, enchanted with each other. And at the end of the room, seated on her chair with a circle of silent ladies all around her, a priest on either side for support, is My Lady, wearing deepest black, torn between grief and fury, She is no longer My Lady the King’s Mother – the title that gave her so much pride is buried with her son. Now, if she chooses it, she can be called My Lady the King’s Grandmother, and by the thunderous look on her face she does not choose it.
observations: In the UK, the book-reading population is obsessed with a TV programme at the moment: the BBC’s 6-part production of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. There’ll be more about this in a future post, but it seemed like a good time to look at Philippa Gregory’s latest. Lady Margaret Pole flits in and out of any reading you do about the Tudor years – the most memorable thing about her was her death…. See below for SPOILER
Philippa Gregory has written several fine novels about the Tudors: her Other Boleyn Girl is one of my favourite historical novels of all time, and was a game-changer for the genre. Now this book connects Gregory’s Cousins’ War sequence with the Tudor books: Margaret Pole was a Plantaganet, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence and so the niece of two kings – Edward IV and Richard III. During her lifetime her fortunes changed dramatically several times. Gregory attempts to make a coherent story of her life - she has tried to make a best guess at a mindset that might have been hers. So this is clearly a novel, but I found it fascinating and convincing, and the picture it draws of the horrors of the later years of Henry VIII’s reign is undeniable. The man was a vicious and probably sociopathic tyrant. There is a great description of Jane Seymour ‘stepping up to a throne which was still warm from the frightened sweat of the last incumbent.’
Margaret Pole is shown as no angel – Gregory is sometimes accused of giving her women modern feelings, but I think what she does well is show how they might have been. Her Margaret has no doubts about her own superiority, the importance of her family, and the divine right of Kings. There is a nice moment where she says : ‘for a moment I have a sense of the joy that comes with having, at last, some stake in the game, some power’ – and all Gregory’s heroines tend to be like this. It is a refreshing change: we know so little of what women actually thought at this time, and I like her tough women who can be selfish and cruel and ruthless. Women lived by harsh rules at that time, but we must also accept that women imposed those rules as much as men. And it’s obvious that some women did want power.
There has been some bookish talk lately of whether women characters are ‘allowed’ to be bad, whether readers will accept that, and I myself wrote a piece for a Guardian series called Baddies in Books - I was keen to write about a woman, and chose Sylvia Tietjens from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. It seems to me that women are not being presented fully if they are not shown as having the full range of feelings, crimes and thoughts – and that it is not very feminist to show only heroines who are ‘nice’ and don’t behave badly. Philippa Gregory’s women can never be accused of that, and it’s one of the reasons I like her books so much.
The picture is as portrait supposed to be that of Margaret Pole, though there is some doubt.
SPOILER OF KINDS:
Margaret Pole was condemned to die at the Tower at the age of 67, and a bungled execution resulted in her fighting back on the block: allegedly the inexperienced headsman took 10 blows to kill her.