I’m so glad I decided to return to reading new Philippa Gregory books this year. This was my second new read of the year by her, after reading The King’s Curse in June.
With this book, Philippa Gregory has now written about all six of the women to have been married to one of England’s most famous Kings – Henry VIII. This book covers the marriage of Kateryn Parr to the infamous tyrant and as ever, fantastically inhabits and explores the experience of a woman in the sixteenth century; a woman placed in a position of simultaneously great power and great danger. The blurb asks a provocative question:
Why would a woman marry a serial killer? Because she cannot refuse…
This is one of the things I love about Gregory’s writing. She forces us into the perspective that we were not encouraged to take in school, where most of us will have encountered Tudor history first. The Tudors is a popular topic in school history lessons, but never until I had given up History as a lesson altogether did I read a Philippa Gregory book and start to think more about the actual experience of the women in these situations more than what they meant specifically and exclusively in the context and the eyes of the man they had to marry. At school, it was not even discussed whether or not any of Henry’s Queens loved him – although I remember talking about whether he loved any of them. I seem to remember some suggestion that Jane Seymour was the Queen he ‘really loved’, because she gave him a son – a conversation that makes me sigh now, both because of how reductive it was of these spectacular historical women, and because we somehow still constructed that notion as ‘love’. So for all this, I was so pleased to see this famous historical figure so straightforwardly identified as a serial killer. He may have been many other things as well, but it’s hard to argue that he was in any way a good husband.
I was fascinated with the portrait painted of figures I know of, as a name, as a face in distant-seeming paintings, as a wife, and nothing other than a wife. I loved reading and learning about the sort of world she was living in – or Philippa Gregory’s idea of it, at least. I do promise, I know the difference between fictional speculation and hard historical fact!
I love the rich detail she brings to the experience of a woman in so intensely a misogynistic society, and the blows to pride Kateryn has to endure simply to stay safe. She was married without a choice to a man who was, by that time, probably abusive in all his relationships – romantic, political, platonic – and had executed several previous wives. This book really interestingly demonstrates the potential for a relationship that is unhealthy and one sided to have ‘good’ sides, and aspects that the abused party clings to as evidence that it isn’t really as bad as it seems when Henry turns against her. While Kateryn neither loves nor lusts for Henry, she does come to trust him to a certain degree, and to trust in the idea that his love for her protects her from the cruelty he showed previous wives. As always, one of my favourite things her was the exploration of relationships between women – particularly the relationship built between Kateryn and Henry’s (acknowledged) daughters.
Philippa Gregory did a fantastic Q&A in the promotional runup to the release of The Taming of the Queen, and I particularly loved her answer for the question ‘Where do you find all these strong women?’ (1:55) – ‘Well, thank god, It’s because they’re there.’
I will always, always be recommending Philippa Gregory to fans of historical fiction, to enthusiasts about the period and so on… but most of all, to myself, because I always so enjoy reading her books.