Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Why I love Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory and her strong, doomed women

I have a secret which is about to be revealed. Despite my bookshelf being crammed with Blake, Woolf, Eliot and Dostoyevsky, I absolutely love romantic historical fiction. The fatter the book and the glossier the cover the better. And most of all I love my recently discovered Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels.

Gregory is first and foremost a really good writer. She has a deft use of language and a density of description that means she fully recreates the world of the Tudor courts she writes about, the smells, the colours, the landscapes, the houses and the costumes. Reading her novels, she puts you right there, timid behind the throne, absorbing the action. Secondly, she has a brilliant way with characterisation, particularly in my mind of her female characters. They leap out of the page, alive and strong and passionate, often angry and often sensual. They are full characters who invite your love, hate, distaste and admiration. And thirdly, her books are well researched, from the details of the colour of the gown Mary Boleyn wore at a gala, to the complex hatreds and schemings of Jane Boleyn and Thomas Howard.

David Starkey recently spoke out against the 'feminisation' of history, that we are all so obsessed with Henry VIII's wives that we don't care about his rule. As the F Word rightly pointed out, this was an absurd statement to say the least. In the main, history has been written by men, for men and about men. Although there are ever more wonderful female historians coming through and being published, the names we associate with popular history are still overwhelmingly male. This very masculinist way of writing and looking at history has often put me off a subject I love. For me, Gregory's novels (and Alison Weir's fiction works) have opened up a feminine and feminist angle in history, particularly Tudor history, that has enticed me to move from the novels to non-fiction history books (Alison Weir again!). They have introduced me to a history beyond the male perspective, a history of women. And although I know that the novels Gregory writes are just that, novels, her works have inspired me to discover more about the women behind the fiction.

Gregory's most renowned novel is The Other Boleyn Girl, which tells the story of Mary Boleyn, the less-well known sister of Anne, who was mistress to Henry VIII before he fell in love with Anne and turns the whole country upside down to marry her, before turning it upside down again to murder her. (it's not a spoiler! We all know the story!)

What comes across most strongly in The Other Boleyn Girl is the sense of powerlessness of the women in Henry's court, and yet the independence of spirit, bravery and loyalty that they also embody. According to the fictional account, Mary is married at 12, becomes Henry's mistress at the age of 13, having been pushed into Henry's bed by her uncle, father and mother. She is a pawn in the political game to get the Boleyn and Howard power on the throne, and she plays her part willingly. As she says later on in a rage 'I have always been obedient!' She doesn't have any choice. She is Henry's mistress for a number of years and (in the fictional account) has a daughter and son by him, children whom she must leave in the country in order to serve Henry sexually and in court. It is the extent to which she misses her children and adores being a mother that leads to her eventually forging her own path away from the power games of her family. During the Tudor period, women could not have sex whilst pregnant, or afterwards until they had been 'churched', and so to keep Henry's eye in the direction of the Boleyns, Mary's uncle pushed Anne into his flirtation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So far, so woman victim, Mary appears to be someone who is pushed from man to man by other men. But as she grows up and becomes a mother, you see a woman who is determined to form her own way and her own independence. She recognises that as a member of the Tudor court she is not allowed to live her own life, and as Anne's star rises she stays by her sister's side and supports her as she moves from favourite to wife. But eventually she stamps her feet, falls in love and has had enough. She scandalises the court by choosing her own path and creates her own happiness. She is marvellously self aware, self-determined, and a woman who is incredibly aware of her sexuality and sensual pleasure. After a youth of being pushed and pulled in every direction at the whims of an increasingly deranged and power hungry king and family, as an adult she forges her own way. In her determination to choose her own destiny, Mary Boleyn is painted as a very modern woman, a woman you can respect.

As well as the feminist portrayal of Mary, The Other Boleyn Girl viciously exposes the destructive nature of sexism and hatred of women. As we all know, Henry VIII was determined to have a son, and both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had daughters. Gregory terrifyingly portrays the absolute fear inherent in being pregnant with a daughter, and the terror the queens felt at not falling pregnant at all. It was treason to suggest the King was impotent, even though clearly his health was such that it was difficult for him to conceive. Therefore, the lack of pregnancies are blamed squarely on the women he marries. Gregory portrays a court where women were driven to desperation in the fight to have a son, where women were seen as nothing but breeding machines (the reason for a wet nurse was to minimise the period after birth when the woman was unable to conceive) or sex toys. We see Anne driven to terrible deeds to conceive a baby, knowing that her life depended on her ability to produce a son.

The novel ends with Anne's execution, as Henry's love for her is poisoned to hatred at the lack of a son. It is a devastating scene, where we truly realise the terrific power of the King and the affect of such a male-centric court on the lives of women. Despite Anne's often appalling treatment of Mary, Gregory beautifully portrays the relationship between the two sisters and their brother George. We see Mary's loyalty and love of her siblings, who, in so many ways, are marooned in a court which sees them not as fully human, but as conduits to power and breeders of sons.

What really stands out about this novel is that Gregory doesn't patronise the reader by making the characters one dimensional – purely heroes and purely villains. In this way she almost rescues women such as Anne Boleyn from their historical legacy. We often think of Anne as either a victim or a whore. Yes, she was a victim but she was also a viciously ambitious woman, willing to tread on anyone in her path, including her sister and Katherine of Aragon. She could be brutal and single minded in the pursuit of the power that she craved. Yet, she was also a woman trapped in a plot determined to destroy her, she was a pawn in a male dominated court and the wife of a King who was becoming increasingly power crazed and paranoid. One of the most poignant scenes in the novel comes when she helplessly faces the King, holding aloft her daughter, pleading for him to love her again. Gregory refuses to make her a simple character, and whilst at moments you want to scream at her to be nicer, you can't help but feel devastated by her downfall at the hands of such vicious, unrepentant and greedy men.

The Boleyn Inheritance picks up on many of the themes and characters of The Other Boleyn Girl, including the monstrous Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Mary and Anne. Just as in some ways we see Anne Boleyn's character being rescued from historical stereotype, so she does the same for Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. Rather than 'the ugly one' and the 'stupid but pretty one', we see two women who are again, at the mercy of male power, trying to forge their own paths. And whilst Anne achieves it, surviving her marriage to Henry and after his death, having the freedom to live a life away from fear, on her own terms, Catherine follows the path of her cousin to the block. Catherine's story is heartbreaking, married to the King at 15, and executed at 17. Again, we see a story where women are persecuted for not getting pregnant (although it is clear that by this stage, Henry was most probably impotent) and subject to the whims and jealousies of a King who is deluded by power. Yet whilst in some respects, Anne and Catherine are powerless women, Gregory imbues them with a spirit and bravery that has perhaps been missing in the public's general view of the two short lived queens. We see a woman such as Anne determined to escape a destructive home life and be a woman on her own terms, and Catherine who despite her frivolous nature is incredibly self aware about the paranoia and idiocy of the court.

But tragedy is still, clearly, inherent in her story. Gregory heartbreakingly describes Catherine's intense sexual frustration and disgust that she can't put into words regarding her relations with the king, and the unspeakable sadness she feels about having her youth wasted and ultimately destroyed.

As in The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory explores the still present today sexual double standard for men and women. Anne learns to 'pleasure the king' to keep him in love with her, her sexuality is then used against her to brand her a whore and a traitor. Similarly, Catherine uses her sexuality, her 'French whore tricks' to try and get pregnant by the King, and her sexuality is obviously something he enjoys, until he chooses to see it as evidence of wantonness and treachery. And whilst Henry can have a mistress at every turn, from Mary Boleyn to Madge Shelton and many more, the idea that his wives were not virgins or the rumour that they were unfaithful puts their heads on the block. Just as these women weren't free to love who they chose, neither were they allowed a sexuality. In this way, by choosing to pursue her love and express her sexuality, I believe Mary Boleyn is portrayed as a very modern, very feminist heroine, whilst the repression of Catherine's desires go a long way to explaining the ways in which sexual women are seen, then as today.

Gregory's depiction of Jane Boleyn is another stroke of mastery. She has a much bigger role in The Boleyn Inheritance than in The Other Boleyn Girl, a woman who is so damaged by jealousy and greed, and yet who we almost feel sympathy for, she again is just another pawn in male games, and perhaps the most powerless of them all, for her ambition are never her own, but those of the men around her.

I'll finish with a word about Gregory's latest novel, The Other Queen, about Mary Queen Of Scots. Gregory said that she avoided writing about her as she thought she was 'an idiot', but after discovering more about her she realised that she too had been caricatured by popular perception. Rather than a silly frivolous queen ruled by her heart, we see a woman of bravery and determination, who could have fulfilled her promise to rule Scotland. There is a terrifyingly modern moment in the book when Mary speaks to her hostess/jailer Bess of Hardwick, about her rape by Bothwell. In response to Bess asking why she didn't accuse him in court, Mary says how could she, when men believe that woman are easily seduced and say no when they mean yes, when juries will always believe a man's words over a woman. A truth in 1569 as much as it is now.

I hope I have given a flavour of why I believe Gregory's books can be read from a very real feminist perspective. As well as being fast paced, well written thrilling reads, we see a writer who is very focussed on giving a female perspective on a period of history where women were seen as breeders and wives. She presents characters who are determined to form their own lives, or who are helplessly caught up as pawns in destructive games of powers. She rescues women from their historic stereotypes, presenting a female-centric view of history that allows us to see women who we so often only think of in relation to men, as real fully formed characters, flawed and brave, trying to break free.

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