There’s just nothing I love better than when historical novelist can pull out a character you didn’t know much about from history, especially a character who’s not really all that sympathetic and likeable, and bring that person vividly to life on the page. That’s what Philippa Gregory does brilliantly in The Red Queen, the second of her new series about the Wars of the Roses (the first was The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville).
While The White Queen was about a commoner who unexpectedly becomes a queen, The Red Queen is the story of Margaret Beaufort, a noblewoman who clings fiercely to the belief that her destiny is to be queen — or, at least, Queen Mother. Margaret, a passionately devout and completely self-centred little girl, is raised to believe that the future of the House of Lancaster just might be in her womb, and even when her son, Henry Tudor, seems a long, long way from ever sitting on England’s throne, she continues to believe in her destiny and shapes her whole life around making it come true.
And, of course, if you know either bit of history you know that against all odds she succeeds — which makes The Red Queen less of a tragedy than most works of historical fiction. It has, in some senses at least, a happy ending, if Gregory is successful in the admittedly challenging task of getting you to root for Margaret and the Lancasters. She has the disadvantage here of working with a very unsympathetic heroine, and she doesn’t take the easy way out by making Margaret nice and sweet and lovable — rather, she makes the reader care about what happens to Margaret even though she’s a bit of a hard-nosed beyotch.
My only complaint with this novel came at the end. After so much build-up to the day when Margaret would finally be able to call herself “My lady, the king’s mother,” the novel ends with the Battle of Bosworth Field and Margaret getting news of Henry’s victory from a messenger. We never get to see her reunion with her son, or with her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor — and Jasper’s characterization, along with his relationship with Margaret, is one of the true gems of this novel. Nor do we get to enjoy her triumph of finally appearing at court as the king’s mother. All these things lie in Margaret’s future — and many of them will, no doubt, be taken up by Gregory in later novels — but I felt a little cheated that the book ended where it did. However, cheated or not, it was a great ride, and I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction.