Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory has made her career on Henry VIII's monstrousness.  Taming of the Queen tackles Kateryn (an unusual spelling choice on Gregory's part, I think) Parr, sixth and last wife of the bigger than life Tudor king.  If nominally each book in her long series has been about the wives, standing with boot firmly planted on each of them has been the king himself.  Gregory's most unsympathetic Henry morphs slightly in each book - the selfish, brattish bon vivant that married Catalina of Aragon and wooed Anne Boleyn; the spoiled royal bro-bag who scorned Anne of Cleves; the creepy old perv who married and murder Catherine Howard; and finally the cold, calculating abusive, heartless, petulant old man who marries and terrorizes Kateryn Parr.  Gregory clearly abhors Henry VIII, and brutally scrapes away any sympathy we may have had for his marital situations or government policies to reveal a tyrant and monster of Caligula proportions.

The last time anyone set eyes on a living Henry VIII, smelled his rot or heard his roar, was five hundred years ago.  Those five centuries have smudged Henry into a legendary figure, fiction and fact blurring into a bluebeard-ish  exaggeration.  Gregory definitely has a story to tell, a proudly feminist story too, and there's no harm in that!  I imagine the true Henry VIII lies beneath the rivers of time, and occasionally bits of him show through as the waters move over him; Gregory has probably tapped into some of his true nature, as the surviving records show men and tyrants behaving in similar ways.  No matter how you color the king, he still brutally killed two of his wives, and and humiliated two others.  I can believe the mad old man that Gregory created  for Kateryn Parr to marry and be in constant fear at the very least was sometimes how Henry VIII behaved in real life, even if Gregory gives him and her some modern language.


The Taming of the QueenThe Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hasn't Philippa Gregory's career rose on her intense dislike of Henry VIII? I imagine it's a love/hate relationship - loving the many times she was able to go to the Tudor well and draw water; hating the king himself (Gregory's Henry is at best an unlikable Malfoyian brat; at worst one of the most horribly loathsome Roman emperors). This final book has his iron toed boot grinding down over the court and England, and particularly grinding down Kateryn Parr, his sixth and last wife. (I assume it's the last book, because I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Henry is dead at the end; but Gregory's pen may find more Tudor water; she seems adept at doing that). Gregory's Parr is well written and interesting but after five hundred years, the king and his wives are all legendary creatures, with fiction and myth clouding truths. Parr believable comes across as a combination of strong and terrified, a woman who knows from the start she's entered into a pact with the devil, and then horrifying realizing the devil is much,much more crazy and worse than she could have imagined (this is historical horror without the occult; A Child Called "It" for the historical fiction set). Gregory's writing to me is always kind of like the Tudors walked through the shadow of the Valley of the Dolls, and passed out again a heavenly mixture of literary and trashy (litertrashary?) . You can feel good about reading a Gregory book, because it's the very best kind of historical fiction, one historical accurate, beautiful, fun step away from Alison Weir (who, let's be honest, has been known to bore a reader to death with details). But that accuracy is heavily made up with glitz and glam, melodrama and sex, until everything glitters like Anne Boleyn's rubies.


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