In a nutshell, this is the (fictionalized) life story of Lady Margaret Beaufort. She is a very pious young girl, married off against her wishes first to Edmund Tudor, who widows her before she gives birth to his son at the age of 13, and then to Henry Stafford. After she’s widowed a second time, she makes her own marriage of politics, not love, to Thomas Stanley. The Tudors’ fortunes have shifted, and her son has been raised by his paternal uncle Jasper, as the House of York holds the English crown. Margaret works to promote her own son’s claim to the throne through various machinations and deceptions, pretending service to the York King Richard III and his Queen Anne. Richard is defeated on the battlefield and her son does finally take the throne himself as King Henry VII. The story is told in Margaret’s voice in first person, aside from a few passages of third-person narration towards the end, describing battles and events that (presumably) Margaret could not have described as she would not have been present.
I found Margaret unlikeable. This does not necessarily preclude me liking the book. She was self-consciously pious to the point of being self-righteous and often hypocritical: as in, “my piety is so great and God loves me so that I am deserving of the highest of honors, you should make me an abbess although I am only 13 years old,” etc. She demanded a life that was unavailable to girls or young women of her time and of her social standing; this struck me as anachronistic. I am certainly fuzzy on my historical accuracy for 15th century England! But I suspect it is unlikely that this young lady, nearly from the cradle, as it were, would be demanding such an unknown level of independence and control over her own destiny. On the other hand, perhaps the point about the young Margaret is just this: that she was odd, demanded unusual or unheard of honors. After all, the book opens with her having visions of herself as Joan of Arc. She certainly saw herself differently. So, my criticism here is qualified. And it didn’t particularly take away from my enjoyment of the book; it’s something I noted, as I continued to listen with interest in what would happen next. Did I like Margaret? Not for a moment. But I enjoyed and was held captive by her story.
There were weaknesses. The political intrigue aspects tended to be painted with a broad brush, in the fairly lazy literary convention of having a character recite the action in a monologue with explication that would not realistically be necessary if she were really making this speech. In other words, an info dump in the voice of a character. [Late in the book, we do get some passages of narration in a third-person-omniscient voice. Unfortunately, this didn't improve things for me, particularly in this audio format, because a different reader took over; I found it a little jarring. But maybe by that point I was becoming difficult to please.] I felt that the book was most concerned with Margaret’s feelings and internal action, and it was occasionally necessary to fill us in on why so-and-so is riding into battle with so-and-so, and Gregory did it as quickly and easily as possible. This stands out in contrast to a historical fiction author I really like, Sharon Kay Penman, who takes her historical accuracy very seriously and takes the time to spell it all out very meticulously while keeping her characters very lifelike. Now, Penman and Gregory create very different reading experiences, and readers – entirely validly – are likely to prefer one or the other, and both are okay. Gregory’s books are fast-paced, emotional, hopefully riveting, and lighter on historical accuracy. Penman’s are longer, rather denser, accurate, and engrossing in that they bring the world in which they are set fully to life. One is not “better,” but they are different.
A few character developments felt rushed and unexplained to me. There is a certain man with whom Margaret suddenly shares a seeming bond of love, but I missed the progression of feelings; they were just there and then suddenly… staring into each other’s eyes and making declarations (or worse, references to an unspoken but understood shared feeling). And again, Margaret’s loyalty to and passion for her Tudor line came out of nowhere for me. When the book began, her mind was focused on God; and a little later she is full of loyalty to the Lancasters and rebuking those whose loyalty wavered. Again, I seem to have missed the part where she discovered the strong tie she felt to her relatives.
And yet I remained intrigued and kept reading. I was occasionally exasperated, but overall my experience was overwhelmingly one of enjoyment. Verdict? I am more a Sharon Kay Penman reader than a Philippa Gregory reader! I seem to be left feeling like I need to do a little research when I finish a Gregory book. But they’re good fun. And I haven’t found any audiobooks of Penman’s work yet!