Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.

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