In the wake of November 8th, it’s really difficult–nay, impossible–to not read and watch everything produced in the years leading up to Trump’s electoral victory through the prism of the dystopian perspective he brings to the world. As a trained historicist–that is, one who views all cultural artifacts as existing in an ongoing relationship with the social and political world in which they are located–it is both fascinating and disconcerting to begin piecing together a historical tapestry, even while living in the middest of this pivotal historical moment.
As I was finishing up my reading of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Taming of the Queen, which follows the marriage of Kateryn Parr to Henry VIII, it was hard not to view it as a precursor to the dark times in which we now live. While I don’t think that Gregory necessarily had the conflict between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on her mind when she wrote this novel, it’s hard, in hindsight, not to see it as at least tapping into the rumblings and seismic shifts that have been detectable for quite some time now. How could you not, when its central characters a brilliant woman who is erudite, learned, and intelligent and a blustering, capricious, and cruel man whose only true investment remains in himself and his own pleasures?
In Gregory’s always-capable hands, Parr emerges from these pages as a fiery, passionate, intelligent woman, one who is as fiercely in love with the dashing Thomas Seymour, a bit of a rakish character who nevertheless has managed to steal the heart of our heroine. However, despite her love of this man, she knows that she has no choice but to give him up once she finds herself caught up in the net of Henry’s court and his own rapacious desires. She knows that if she were to deny the king, she might very well meet the fate of so many others (both men and women) who fell afoul of Henry and attempted to deny him what he desired.
In the world of the Tudors, the monarch’s wishes and demands are the only thing that matters, and gratifying them is the surest way to the pinnacle of power–or to the absolute depths of defeat and death on the headsman’s block. It is largely because of this that Kateryn must continue to wheedle and cajole this aging tyrant, both so that she can continue pursuing her ardent intellectual passions but also, and just importantly, so that she can save herself from the death that met two of his other wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). The novel refers again and again to the jewels, furs, and belongings of those former queens, and these material remains of the past continue to haunt Katern as she must struggle against those in the court (Stephen Gardiner foremost among them) who would love nothing more than to bring her down and destroy her.
Indeed, it is precisely her intellectual acumen that nearly proves her undoing. Utterly dedicated to the rising tide of Protestantism, Kateryn soon associates herself with the foremost reformers in the country, inviting the fieriest of Protestant preachers to preach in her rooms. She also begins doing her own translations, and Gregory shows her to be a woman who manages to find a balance between her intellect and her faith. While this at first pleases Henry–who always did fancy himself a scholar–all too soon it proves to be her weak spot, as her outspokenness alienates her.
It is only when she thoroughly abases herself before him–allowing him to beat and humiliate her in the most degrading ways–that she is saved from the headsman. From that point on, she must bury all of her intellectual, romantic, and spiritual inclinations under a veneer of submissiveness, and it is only Henry’s timely death that releases her from her chains.
Henry emerges as very much a man cut in the mold of what we have seen of Trump. Utterly capricious, vengeful, gluttonous, and venal, this Henry sees himself as a grand pupper-master, determined to keep a stranglehold on the power that has been his for so many years. He turns against anyone who dares to whisper a word of opposition to him, and indeed it is only his abrupt death that saves the Duke Thomas Howard–a man who has served Henry since the beginning of his reign–from the headsman’s block. Indeed, some time ago the noted feminist scholar Susan Bordo (author of the excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn) drew out some of these uncanny similarities between the 16th Century monarch and our current President-Elect.
Yet, despite the clouds of impending darkness that seem to have obliterated any hope for an enlightened future in which women’s voices are recognized and celebrated as valid, the ending of Gregory’s novel does provide some solace and hope for a better future. As Kateryn writes:
“I believe that to be a free woman is to be both passionate and intelligent; and I am a free woman at last.”
Though these lines provide narrative closure, they also remind us of the fierce spirit that motivates women both past and present, and that beyond the darkest days there still lies a glimmer, however faint, of hope.