The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “End of the Curse” (S2, Ep. 1)

As it’s been ages since I wrote anything about The Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a bit of a break from my novel and dissertation stuff to write a brief entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon. Here, we move at last into the second season, wherein Blanche has to confront the fact that she is moving into the next phase of her life, when she is told that she has begun menopause.

To my eye, this episode marks a definitive turning point in the way that the series works. Whereas Season 1 focused primarily on the familial and the personal–conflicts with grandchildren, nephews, sons, daughters, etc.–the second begins to really break out in an explicit way into the broader political questions that will become one of the series’ hallmarks.

Further, it also marks some significant shifts in tone. As I noted several times in my discussion of the first season, the characters had not quite gelled yet, though they came pretty close by the season finale. Rose is the character that shows the greatest change from the first season. By this episode, she has largely shed the prude persona–so conspicuously on display in the episode in which Dorothy has an affair with a married man–and has slowly morphed into the naive, slightly dim-witted, yet incredibly sincere and lovable Rose that will be her incarnation for the remainder of the series. Her funniest moment in this episode comes from her fundamental understanding of what an aphrodisiac is, leading to an absolutely hilarious interchange with Dorothy about “African what?,” the singular or plural form of Spanish fly (or beetle); and whether minks can be induced to mate.

The real center of the episode, however, is Blanche’s body and her relationship to it.

There’s no question that the subject of women’s bodies and their functioning is one of the most vexed in western (and perhaps global) culture. This is particularly true of Blanche, who sees herself as, first and foremost, both an object of desire for men and, I would argue, as the agent of that desire. The accumulated myths associated with menopause (or “The Change,” as it is menacingly referred to throughout the episode) suggest to her that with this biological shift she is losing an essential part of her femininity that renders her into that desirable and desiring subject/object.

Fortunately, the episode goes out of its way to inform Blanche (and us), that there is nothing unnatural about this shift. As her psychologist tells her, she will still be the same Blanche that she has always been, the same desiring, fun-loving woman with an uninhibited sex drive. Rather than seeing her as deranged–which Rose seems to, quite problematically, believe–he helps de-escalate her psychological state. As a result, she goes from seeing in her face the shade of her mother to hitting on the veterinarian who comes to examine the minks. She has emerged triumphant, back to being the love goddess that we know and love.

It is also worth noting that the series other major plotline, the breeding of minks for their fur, also expresses (albeit more subtly) one of the other semi-consistent political issues of the series: the ethical treatment of animals. Fortunately, the minks don’t end up being fur coats.

Next up, we come to one of my favourite episodes, in which the women’s plans to meet Burt Reynolds go terribly awry…

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Big Daddy” (S1, Ep. 23)

Since its been ages since I published a post about The Golden Girls, and since I needed something to distract me from some personal grief, I thought I’d write another one. In today’s episode, we meet Blanche’s father “Big Daddy” who, unbeknownst to her, has sold the family mansion and taken up a career as a country singer.

While Big Daddy will appear in another episode, this iteration is a rather earthier, more homespun charmer than his later incarnation. It’s clear that Blanche has a very close relationship with her father, yet it is equally true that she cares just as much about the dignity of the family name (for anyone who is from the South, this should sound and feel quite familiar). Unfortunately, as the episode progresses, she finds that her interest in maintaining the latter conflicts with the former.

There are truly some golden comedic exchanges, as when Big Daddy asks Dorothy to promise him that she won’t “fret none.” Dorothy, with her typical dead-pan delivery, says she would so, only she doesn’t know what “fret none is.” Of course, part of the humour in this situation arises from Dorothy’s ever-present skepticism and indeed dismissal of the peculiarities of southern culture.

Despite the episode’s focus on the personal relationship between Blanche and her father, there is also an ever-so-slight feminist element that springs from the conflict between the women and their cantankerous neighbour who refuses to repair the damage done by his tree.

TV Review: “Feud”–“And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)”

In the most recent episode of Feud, the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony gains momentum, and the chasm between Bette and Joan continues to widen until it is irrevocable. When Bette loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, largely as a result of Joan’s scheming, the bitterness is fully set, and there will be, can be, no turning back for any of them.

There’s a nice little aside included in the episode, in which the majestic, statuesque, and ever-so-slightly over-mannered Olivia de Havilland, suggests that the feud between her and her sister Joan Fontaine was one fabricated in large part by a media determined to sow dissent.  There is a slight bit of hypocrisy in this episode, however, in that a subsequent scene shows all too clearly that Olivia had no love for her sister, and that the bitterness between them was quite real indeed.

Though de Havilland has been hovering on the edge of the screen since the series began, it’s only now that she has finally come into full focus, as the episode shows us the close relationship between Bette and Olivia. One can sense in Olivia’s somewhat distant performance a hint of jealousy and bitterness about her friend’s success and talent. As she remarks, Bette always saw her as Melanie from Gone with the Wind to her Scarlett, and she acknowledges, with just a trace of sadness, that that is true. Graceful and statuesque as she is, she knows that as far as Hollywood and the broader public is concerned, she will always be one of the system’s lesser lights, a minor star in a galaxy full of supernovas like Davis.

The other bit player in this episode who also begins to emerge into a fuller light is Judy Davis’s magnificently waspish and poisonous Hedda Hopper. For all of her vitriol and bitterness, Hopper is convinced of the rightness of her poison pen, which she has honed to a fatal point. The episode also reveals that she is as riddled with contradiction as any other woman in Hollywood. She criticizes Davis for being vulgar, and yet she makes a spurious claim that Bette Davis uses one of her Oscars as a doorstop in her bathroom. Yet she sees all of this as justified, her self-understanding as the moral compass of Hollywood rendering her inviolable from any trace of true self-reflexion or criticism.

Once again, Lange’s Crawford continues to wring the pathos from the script. When she says that something in her broke at the word of the Oscar nominations, for the very first time I felt like I was looking at the actual Joan Crawford on screen before me. Her visage showing all of its alcohol-produced flaws in the glaring light of the California sun, she has clearly begun a descent into desperation that ends, embarrassingly, in a phone call to Geraldine Page in which she convinces the younger actress to step out of the Oscar ceremony and an equally uncomfortable and pathetic visit to Anne Bancroft (who eventually wins, allowing Crawford to step out onto the stage). Yet even these moments are full of pathos, as Sarah Paulson’s Geraldine Page proudly announces that Hollywood should be made to look at what they have done to Crawford, and Bancroft graciously concedes to Crawford’s request.

Lange’s Crawford emerges in these scenes as a peculiar mixture of pathetic and malignant, someone driven by her own chronic sense of fragile self-worth.  As she tells George Cukor in one of the episode’s most affecting lines, she is not bigger than this pettiness, a stunning confession that reveals the extent to which she has come to understand her zenith as inevitably and irrevocably past.

(On a random note, I also appreciated the episode’s use of mirrors, in which constantly forces the characters to look at themselves and to face the unflattering light in which they so frequently paint themselves).

All in all, I found this the best episode yet of Feud, and yet also the most tragic. The final scene, in which Joan comes home from her pyrrhic victory was one of the most affecting the show has yet produced. As Crawford sits alone in her bedroom, gazing at the statue, one can’t help but reflect about all that has been lost as the feud between the two women grows ever more venomous. It is truly one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Mommie Dearest” (S1, Ep. 3)

Just when I thought that Feud couldn’t get any better, it manages to continue to showcase the ability of Ryan Murphy to plumb the depths of despair and sadness in the human psyche. In particular, it shows his longstanding interest in the suffering that women endure in a patriarchal world that rarely, if ever, values them for themselves.

Overall, the episode offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the convoluted nature of motherhood in particular. As is well-known, both Bette and Joan had quite vexed relationships with their children. Overall in this episode Bette is the one who emerges as the most compassionate mother, in that she continues to try to support B.D., even though it’s obvious she’s a terrible actress. Further, she also continues working in order to pay the bills for her younger daughter’s schooling.

It is her relationship with Victor Buono, her effeminate and portly gay co-star, that really cements Bette’s inner core of maternal feeling. In Buono, she sees a companion spirit, a man who has suffered because of his sexuality (at one point he is arrested in a vice sting and she has to bail him out of jail), but in whom she sees a great deal of genuine talent. The scenes that show them together show a meeting of the minds, a young acolyte starstruck and determined to make the most out of this moment to costar with one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history (incidentally, Buono would also star with Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).

Even Crawford, whose motherly reputation has long been overshadowed by her daughter’s tell-all memoir and its filmic adaptation, appears in this episode as a woman who genuinely wants to care for the children who come under her care. The episode makes it clear that she craves the affection that she was denied in her childhood (except from her stepfather), and that it is this desire for human connection that drives so much of what she does. The brutal irony, of course, is that she cannot see the truth that is right in front of her face. It is Davis, more than any other character, who actually understands Joan and what she suffers, yet she is the one person that she cannot quite bring herself to be friends with, no matter how much it might benefit the two of them.

This episode, as with the ones preceding it, continues to show the extent to which both Joan and Bette are being manipulated by those who have a vested interest in keeping them at one another’s throats. It’s particularly frustrating that it’s Hedda Hopper who continues to pull the strings on Crawford, for as a woman one would think that she would be more sensitive to the need for women in Hollywood to band together and support one another. But, like so many others in Hollywood, all she can see is her own aggrandizement, no matter the human costs.

Yet the episode also shows that, for all of their foibles and flaws, both Crawford and Davis are consummate masters of their craft. Even Crawford, acknowledged as somewhat less than an accomplished actress by subsequent filmgoers, manages to impress even Davis by her delivery of Blanche’s final, crushing revelation. All in all, the episode manages to do justice to both of these phenomenal women of old Hollywood.

However, I do have to express a small amount of concern over the future of the show. After all, we’re only in the third episode, and now, diegetically, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has finished filming. Where will the show go from here? Presumably, it will stretch into the drama over the Oscars, and perhaps will even show the women as they pursue their careers in the aftermath of

TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Blind Ambitions”

Since it’s been quite a while since I posted about my dearly-beloved Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a minute and post about one of my favourite episodes from the first season. In this episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family, in this case Lily, Rose’s sister, who has recently gone blind and struggles to make it on her own.

As my Boyfriend recently pointed out, it’s an interesting fact that the women that hail from St. Olaf (with the exception of Rose) seem to be a bit quicker on the uptake than Rose herself. This is distinct from the men, such as Rose’s cousin Sven or the three men who come to determine whether Rose will be eligible for the St. Olaf Woman of the Year Prize, all of whom are quite as dense (if not more so) than Rose. Lily seems to have escaped the veil of idiocy that surrounds almost all of the other inhabitants of this small Minnesota town.

Throughout the episode, brief as it is, we get a good sense that Lily has really struggled to adapt to life as a blind person. She is clearly a woman who is used to doing what she wants when she wants, and her physical disability has made it difficult for her to adapt to a different kind of life. As a result, she finds that she has to rely on Rose to an extraordinary degree and, unsurprisingly, she asks Rose to come life with her. As happens so often in the series, Rose finds herself torn between various competing personal loyalties.

I’ve always thought that The Golden Girls was fairly progressive in its articulation and representation of disability. The disabled persons who appear in the show are, in many ways, treated just like any other characters. For the most part they aren’t just magical figures that sweep in for a very special episode, only to serve as a message. Now, admittedly, Lily doesn’t really appear again in the show, but it is true that she has a richness and a depth that one rarely sees in a one-off sitcom appearance. We get a real sense of her, both as an individual as well as part of Rose’s very large family. Just as importantly, we also get a strong, almost gut-wrenching sense of what she has lost, when she breaks down and confesses that she yearns for the days when she could still see.

It is thus refreshing that the episode ends with Lily taking control of her own life and deciding that she can, indeed, be independent without Rose’s assistance. Rose’s decision to force Lily to be independent is certainly heart-wrenching for her, but in the end it enables Lily to prove to herself and to her sister that she is capable of leading a life of her own without assistance from others.

Of course, the episode is also full of some truly hilarious moment, as when Rose rediscovers her old teddy bear that was almost sold at the garage sale. The high-pitched voce that she adopts when talking with that teddy bear engenders a screech of dismay from Dorothy, and it is hard not to erupt into laughter at the banter between these two.

Next up, we meet Blanche’s father Big Daddy. Blanche, like her fellow women, must contend with the various pressures of a family.

Review: “Feud”–“Pilot”

Let me begin by saying that I’ve been looking forward to Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology drama Feud: Bette and Joan from the moment that it was announced. As a long-time lover of classical Hollywood, of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and of women’s pictures, this seemed like the perfect mix of everything I loved. And indeed, if the first episode is any indication, it will more than fulfill my expectations.

When it comes to playing abject (anti)-heroines, no one excels like Jessica Lange. Since her several-season run on Murphy’s other successful series American Horror Story, Lange has become acknowledged as one of the leading actresses of her generation, a woman able to not only inhabit her roles but to bring to her flawed characters a deep well of humanity. In Joan Crawford, that most contradictory of classic Hollywood actresses, she finds a character worthy of her tremendous abilities. Within a little more than an hour, Lange has managed to show us the dark depths of Crawford’s tortured soul.

While I personally strongly dislike Susan Sarandon, she does an extraordinary Bette Davis. This is the tough-as-nails actress who took no prisoners and drank and swore with the best of them. And as Joan Blondell says, she always puts the professional before the personal, and as a result she is able to attain heights of acting glory that remain the envy of her nemesis and co-star Crawford. There is no question that Davis was a better actress than Crawford, and in Sarandon she has found a fitting avatar, a woman unafraid of telling everyone in her path what she thinks of them.

Indeed, it seems to me that part of what makes Feud such a compelling show is the fact that a high-profile series has provided a vehicle for two aging actresses. And the series goes out of the way to show that Bette and Joan, for all of their acrimony, actually have far more in common than any other two women in their world. They are both vestiges of a Hollywood system that made use of their talents while caring little for their welfare (as evidenced by Stanley Tucci’s reprehensible Jack Warner). Yet, precisely because they are products of a system that sets women against one another and that has already left them behind, they also find that they can never express any true affection for one another.

Whatever his failings as an auteur, Murphy has a keen eye for a story about the relationships among women, and he knows how to make these stories truly emotionally resonant. One can’t help but be reminded of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary work in Sunset Boulevard, or the many women’s pictures produced during the height of classic Hollywood (the ones in which Crawford and Davis made their reputations). As with those other films of yore, Feud immerses us in a world of pathos, sadness, and delicious poison, so that we can’t help but take pleasure in the seething hatred that slowly re-emerges between these two powerful women.

Murphy also has a keen eye for colour and decor, which is readily apparent with his new outing. The hues seem to pop off the screen, sometimes a little too garish for comfort, a searing reminder of the larger-than-life personalities and heightened emotions these two women experience as they find themselves in a maelstrom of vitriol and ever-deepening and decidedly mutual loathing. They can’t seem to escape from their surroundings, bound together in a cycle of destruction that threatens to consume them both.

All in all, the pilot of this show hopefully bodes well for a thrilling and delicious season of venom and vitriol. Could you ask for more?

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Job Hunting” (S1, Ep. 22)

In today’s entry of the marathon, I want to talk about “Job Hunting,” one of the final episodes of the first season. In this episode, Rose loses her job at the counseling center and, faced with financial insolvency, embarks on a job search that proves less than fruitful.

This is one of the first episodes that starts to address the broader cultural issues of the 1980s head-on. In this case, one of the primary thematic interests of the episodes is the fact that many employers will refuse to hire a person simply because they have reached a certain age (this will be a recurring issue in later episodes as well). Rose has to face the unpleasant realization that the late 20th Century workforce is incredibly hostile to those over 50, particularly women. So great is her shame at this, indeed, that she conceals the full extent of her futile search from her friends, until the futility of it makes it impossible to hide any longer.

Furthermore, it is also striking that Rose, perhaps more than any of the other characters, has had to contend with the economic realities of being a widow after being a housewife. When Dorothy pointedly asks her what she did after Charlie died, she had to pick up the pieces and try to forge an independent identity for herself. However, she also reminds Dorothy that she was younger then and Dorothy’s response–which hilariously points out that both she and Blanche have also gotten older–is not only uproariously funny but also a reminder that the women need each other’s strength to get through these difficult times.

The issue of elder poverty is one that will recur throughout the series, as each of the women must contend in one way or another with the fact that their lives are predicated on a certain scarcity. Though it is easy to forget, part of the reason that they live with one another is because it was too expensive to live on their own. The economic realities of the world they live in are rarely far outside the frame, a perpetual reminder of the precariousness of each of their lives. It is also noteworthy that the women continually support one another in these pinched financial times, for they understand that it is only through their collective emotional and financial strength that they can manage to withstand the curveballs that their culture continually throws at them.

It is striking that the job that Rose eventually attains is one which Blanche roundly criticizes as being beneath her. Yet, as Rose passionately responds, it’s better than sitting around feeling sorry for herself. The chance to work again, even if it as at a diner, represents for her an opportunity to reclaim her lost agency. (Of course, it’s worth pointing out that she eventually returns to being a counselor at a grief center, though whether it’s the one that recently closed or another one is never clarified).

In the next episode, we meet Rose’s sister, and Rose has to face a perilous choice about that sister’s disability.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Flu Attack” (S1, Ep. 21)

Well, it has been a long time since I wrote a post on The Golden Girls. So, to take a bit of a break from the oppressive political news that seems to assail us each and every day, I decided to do a short entry on one of the final episodes of the first season, “Flu Attack,” in which Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose contract a flu and, in the midst of their sniping, also must contend with the fact that each of them is in the running for a prestigious volunteer award.

The episode is marked in particular by one of Sophia’s most humorous and self-reflexive stories. In her telling, pesto was inadvertently created when a village healer gave “Salvador, the village idiot” a salve for an ear infection. Once he realized that the substance actually tasted great on linguini, he decided to market it. When Dorothy accuses her of making the whole thing up, Sophia immediately responds, “I’m old. I’m supposed to be colorful.” Naturally, the scene is played for laughs, but it also contains an awareness of the

The revelation that it is Sophia who will be winning the Best Friend of the Friends of Good Health Award is one of the first instances in which we see her extraordinary level of involvement in the community (this theme emerges more fully in a future season). Furthermore, it also allows us to see the extent to which all four of them are deeply engaged in civic and public service. In the past, some critics have reprimanded the show for not allowing its four women to be more politically active, and I have always wondered if they have been watching the same show that I have. While a writer like Susan Faludi states that the women are safely ensconced in the home (and thus do not pose a challenge to the male order), I would argue that these moments of engagement on their part actually do serve as a site of resistance. They refuse to fade into irrelevance,

I’ve always found this to be one of the best episodes from the first season, as it is one of the ones that clearly shows how both the writing has matured and the four leads have begun to grow more comfortable with one another. There is still a bit of an edge to the comedy, but by now it has already been tempered by the obvious love among the four women, a love made all the more touching by their reconciliation at the end of the episode. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sparring between Blanche and Dorothy in particular is uproariously funny, particularly their argument over custody of the blanket.

However, there are a few tender moments sprinkled amidst the vitriol, as when Blanche in a fit of pique calls Rose a “nerd” and the latter breaks down into tears. While it is clearly intended to be a humorous moment (and it is), it also reveals both Rose’s innate tenderness (for all of her competitiveness) and is also a moment of release from the bickering that has so far taken place. Rose can give as good as she gets, however, as when she passive aggressively reminds Dorothy that she cannot possibly get the award, given that too few people like her. And of course Blanche has her own vulnerabilities, as when she pays a waiter at the event to be her “date,” since her own was unwilling to go with her in her state.

All in all, this is one of the funniest episodes of the first season, if not an explicitly political one.

In the next installment, Rose finds herself unemployed and must attempt to find another job, which turns out to be much more difficult than any of them had anticipated.

Reading History: “The Taming of the Queen” and Donald Trump

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.