Posted in 20thC, Novels

In Which I Have Nothing Nice to Say…

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It’s not often that I give up on a novel, but I couldn’t finish this.

Right. This blog is primarily about books, so off we go. And I’m sorry to say the first review is a book I didn’t like, so I’m not sure this is a good start! It’s Philippa Gregory’s The King’s Curse, and to be honest I can’t think what induced me to buy it, because generally speaking I don’t like her books. My only excuse is that I wasn’t feeling well, and I was browsing Amazon, reading the excerpts  they provide, and before I knew it I’d clicked ‘Buy’, and seconds later up it popped on the Kindle. It’s the final volume in The Cousins’ War, Gregory’s series about the Wars of the Roses, and tells the story of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, whose main claim to fame seems to be that she was 67 when Henry Vlll had her beheaded, which was pretty horrific even by 16th century standards.

I found Gregory’s portrayal of Margaret singularly unpleasant. She’s obsessed by status and her family’s position – she was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward lV and Richard lll), who was (allegedly) drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine after being convicted of treason (he changed sides, abandoning his Yorkist family in favour of the Lancastrians). After his death she was brought up by Edward and then, following his death, by Richard. They were, as she never tires of telling us, the greatest in the land.

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Traditionally, it has been assumed this is a portrait (in the National Portrait Gallery), is of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. (Pic courtesy of Wikipedia).

A Plantagenet, she considers herself vastly superior to the ‘upstart’ Tudors, but she’s not averse to currying favour with them, however and whenever she can. And it’s not only the Tudors she despises. She looks down her aristocratic nose at just about everyone else, including her husband. The only exceptions are Queen Catherine, Princess Mary, and her own family. In fact, family means a lot to her. I kept thinking what a marvellous East End matriarch she would make, and wanted her to suddenly start shrieking ‘get it sorted, ‘e’s family’, or ‘get aht of my palace’. It would have made her lot more interesting!

I think that was part of the problem. Margaret never came to life for me, and I just couldn’t believe in her as a character. We never really know what she thinks or feels, and even when it comes to family there’s no sense that she loves them. She wants her daughter and her sons to do well, but it’s not about happiness, or achieving something in life, it’s about money, power, status, position – and perpetuating the Plantagenet bloodline, even if the family name is lost.

I suppose her position at court must always have been precarious; the Tudor monarchs were quick to crack down on anyone with a rival claim to the throne who could provide a focal point for rebellion. However, for much of her life Margaret seems to have been pretty adept at looking after herself, though her fortunes waxed and waned over the years. She joined the Catherine of Aragon’s household, and became a kind of governess to the young Princess Mary, while her sons, for a time, were high in the King’s favour. It was the King’s ‘Great Matter’, his divorce from Catherine, break with Rome and marriage to Anne Boleyn, which brought about her downfall.

I hate being nasty about living authors and I know Gregory is a highly acclaimed writer and historian (though some historians, most notably David Starkey) dispute this. I have no idea how accurate her facts are in this book, but there were times when I wondered. For example, was Thomas Boleyn really Margaret Pole’s steward? Gregory’s focus always seems to be on controversial issues that make good headlines but are difficult to prove or disprove – witchcraft, incest, affairs, mystery over whether a marriage was consummated…

For all her talk about telling history from the viewpoint of women, especially ‘forgotten’ women, and her insistence that her work is well researched, she always manages to make her books sound more enticing than they turn out to be – they never live up to expectation, and I’m always disappointed, which is exactly what happened with this one.

There was a lot of repetition, and it was so wearisome listening to Margaret whinging on and on about how she came of royal blood, and was once one of the highest in the land. And I couldn’t care less about the other characters. None  of them was clearly defined, which made it difficult to sort out who was who. And despite the references to people, food, clothes, travel, illness and lifestyle, it didn’t feel like Tudor England, though I’m not quite sure why.

I do hate writing nasty things about living authors, but I can’t find anything nice to say about this book at all. I persevered a good way in, then I asked myself: “What am I doing? I don’t have to read something I’m not enjoying.” So I abandoned it, and ended up feeling guilty. It’s probably a hang-over from my school days, but I always think I must finish  a book.

Anyway, I was anxious to remind myself that there are far better novels about this period, so I am now re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, and it is every bit as brilliant as it was first time around. Plus, Mantel has not tried to pass off a work of fiction as a historical truth. She’s gone to some pains to explain that her tale is a version of what might have happened, woven together from available snippets of information, and that she used her imagination to plug the gaps between the known facts.

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I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!

4 thoughts on “In Which I Have Nothing Nice to Say…

  1. The only book by Gregory that I’ve read is The Other Boleyn Girl, which I read years ago before I made notes about what I thought. I did start to read The White Queen when it was dramatised on TV a few years ago but didn’t like either the drama or the book. I also have The Constant Princess unread – I’d even forgotten I have it! I’m not too sure I’ll read either of these books now.

    I don’t think she’s in the same league as Hilary Mantel – her historical fiction is, as you say, brilliant.

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    1. Margaret, this was most of the most tedious things I have ever had the misfortune to read! She’s definitely not in the same league as Hilary Mantel.

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  2. I used to love Philippa Gregory back in the days when she wrote books that weren’t based on real history. They weren’t great literature but they were both readable and entertaining. She lost me very quickly when she stated distorting real history. I suspect that is more marketable but it is such a pity when there is so much potential in the stories and characters. It sounds as though her work has gone steadily downhill.

    Hilary Mantel is a class apart, but I have respect for anyone who knows their history, and for anyone who is prepared to explain what is fact, what is supposition and where they have used their imagination in an afterword.

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