Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen, the follow-up to her 2009 volume The White Queen, is the typical Gregory blend of historical drama and politics, with just a little bit of romance thrown in for some extra flavor. It chronicles the life of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the eventual King Henry VII, as she goes from life as an almost-forgotten member of the Lancastrian family to the mother of the king of England. This is Gregory at her writing best, and is certainly one of the best books of the Summer of 2010.
Gregory does an excellent job of painting the backdrop for this historical drama, which is set in the turbulent period of English history known as the Wars of the Roses, in which two rival branches of the royal family battled for the throne. On the one side were the Yorks (whose queen, Elizabeth Woodville, was the subject of Gregory’s earlier novel The White Queen,) who claimed descent from the junior branch. On the other were the Lancastrians, whose king at the beginning of the wars, Henry VI, was mentally unstable and whose wife and son were clearly unfit for the throne. Although the Wars were very complicated and involved constantly shifting alliances, in The Red Queen Philippa Gregory does an excellent job of allowing the reader to see these things through Margaret’s eyes, which cuts down on the amount of confusion that might otherwise arise.
Although not as sympathetic a character as Elizabeth Woodville, there is nevertheless something endearing about Margaret, who believes that she has a sacred mission from God to see her son sitting on the throne. To that end, she is willing to do anything necessary, including sacrificing her own happiness to ensure that she gains the eagerly-anticipated title of queen. Although this does not make her the nicest character in historical fiction, Gregory does an excellent job of letting us see that this blind ambition stems, at least in part, from the fact that she lived the first parts of her life as a pawn in the political games of those who were powerful than she.
Gregory also proves her adeptness at bringing historical detail to life, while at the same time ensuring that we see the very human characteristics of her characters. Although Margaret may seem to some like a larger-than-life figure, far removed from our own time, in Gregory’s capable hands she becomes something much more human, a fallible person just trying to survive in a world that was very often unfriendly and harsh for women.
Even if you’ve not read The White Queen or any other of Philippa Gregory’s books, don’t let that dissuade you from picking up this fascinating volume. It’s a great summer read, and the plot so finely woven that you’ll be finished reading it almost before you realized you’ve started. Although you might not emerge with a great liking for the indomitable Margaret, you will no doubt have a stronger sense of her drives and ambitions and, ultimately, what made her human.