Book review: Three Sisters, Three Queens

By Isobel Marriner

Philippa Gregory's historical books are a headlong gallop through the tumultuous 15th and 16th centuries.

Philippa Gregory delivers regularly (unlike some of my other favourite authors - I'm looking at you, Hilary Mantel).

Since 2001's blockbuster The Other Boleyn Girl, she's been satisfying her readers by cracking out, usually, a book a year. She's prolific, like a modern Jean Plaidy, and her books, to me, follow the same style. The plots fairly race along, as there's a lot of action to cover in the time periods she chooses to write about; and there's not a lot of deep personal interaction - what character development occurs is generally subordinate to the narrative - but that's not a complaint; her historical books are a headlong gallop through the tumultuous 15th and 16th centuries.

Gregory does take some dramatic licence, indeed she's had criticism from some quarters for veering too far in that direction - but she explains that this is based on her own readings, as a historian, of her character's situations and times, and her conclusions usually seem pretty credible.

What's also great about her is her interest in the plight of women of these times - most, despite their rank, are subject to the service of their families and husbands, though some manage, through determination or luck, to rise above. This book has measures of both.

This time she chooses to focus on three contemporaneous queens, linked by blood and marriage. The most well-known of the trio is Catherine of Aragon, wife to Henry VIII; the other two are Henry's youngest sister Mary, married young to the King of France, and older sister Margaret, possibly the least well-known. But it's Margaret's voice we hear in this novel and her story, though seldom told, is powerful and intriguing, and works as a segue between Gregory's Cousins' War series and her Tudor novels.

The sisters' early, formative years are spent in a royal household in thrall to their dominant paternal grandmother Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), whose sense of entitlement devolves to her eldest granddaughter and namesake. Meanwhile, their mother, the Queen, Elizabeth Plantagenet (The White Princess) is certainly a paler character, forced to acquiesce to her mother-in-law and dying in childbed, desperate to give her husband another son after the tragic death of the heir, Prince Arthur.

Margaret, too, is sent to marry a foreign prince, this time in Scotland, as insurance in a "treaty of perpetual peace" between the fractious neighbours. Her royal husband, James IV - adventurer, intellectual, doting father to his many illegitimate children, and also devout religious penitent - is a fascinating character in his own right but after 10 years their marriage ends when he dies in battle against the English.

Surprisingly, she manages to gain ascendancy as regent for her infant son - but promptly undoes all this good work through a couple of disastrous marriages to attractive but unsuitable men. Thus she pits herself in turn against her powerful brother - whose attitude to her plight is dependent on how his own marriage and political situation is turning out - and her own Scottish nobles, at times making dangerous mid-night flights with the enemy at her heels.

Throwing herself first on the mercy of one side and then the other, her story becomes further entwined with those of her two sister queens - at times seeking their intercession, fuming at their refusals, and often envying their positions, when hers seems far from safe.

But whose position and legacy were ever really guaranteed in those times? Margaret's story is one of the more remarkable, for - although not in her own lifetime - the young bride sent to ensure peace "perpetual peace" between England and Scotland achieved it when James VI, her direct descendant on both sides through her royal husband and her noble husband Archibald Douglas, joined the two countries together on the death of Queen Elizabeth I.


THREE SISTERS, THREE QUEENS
by Philippa Gregory
(Simon and Schuster, $38)

- NZ Herald

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