Every August sees the arrival of a new Philippa Gregory novel that inevitably goes on to become a bestseller and garner a fair amount of acclaim. These novels typically focus on a female historical figure whom Gregory feels has been misunderstood or neglected in some way. In Three Sisters, Three Queens, it is most definitely the latter.
Little has been written about Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of Henry VIII, who became Queen of Scots upon her marriage to James IV in 1503. After his death in 1513, she was left to navigate a sea of ever-shifting allegiances in a constant battle to secure power for her son. Margaret also fought for power and recognition in her own right, making her an intriguing figure. Her importance is underscored by the fact that, as the grandmother of both Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley, it was Margaret’s line who brought about the Union of the Crowns and inherited the throne on the death of Elizabeth I. A more than worthy subject for a historical novel then.
However, this novel doesn’t do Margaret much justice. This is largely because Gregory’s characterisation of her protagonist is terribly flawed. As the title suggests, Margaret is here defined through her relationships with her two ‘sisters’: her younger sister Mary, who briefly became Queen of France, and her sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon, then Queen of England. Margaret’s feelings towards her sisters and fellow queens often run to jealousy; her chief motivation seems to be being above the other two in the hierarchy. This is quite understandable in a time when higher status and good fortune often ensured one’s survival, but Margaret often appears more like a petty and shallow teenager than a savvy survivor. Her feelings towards her sisters are also tediously inconsistent: every so often she checks her jealousy and sees that, like her, the other two women are at the whim of the patriarchy. Again, though understandable, these changes of heart feel unconvincing.
I say these changes of heart are understandable because, in this novel at least, it is the patriarchy that fuels them and ultimately drives the sisters apart. They often become the mouthpieces and the puppets of their male relatives’ whims, wishes and rivalries. As Mary notes in her final letter to Margaret, the women should really be uniting against the system that oppresses them:
We spent our time admiring and envying each other and we should have been guiding and protecting each other.
There is a strong note of third-wave feminism here. Eventually, Margaret herself emerges as something of a third-wave heroine – her slut-shaming of Anne Boleyn aside:
I think I am a woman like that slut Anne Boleyn who dares to look the old rules in the face and choose her own future. I think that Katherine, and all the old people who would keep women where they are, under the rule of men, are my enemy. The world is changing and I am in the forefront of change.
This may be (well, probably is) a case of transposing 21st century values onto a 16th century woman but it is appealing and air-punch inducing nonetheless. Moreover, it transmutes Margaret from a whiny, unattractively petty and status-obsessed character into something far more admirable. And I think that’s probably what she deserves.
Anachronistic it may be, but this feminist undertone really lifts the novel. But not enough. For me, the main issue is with plotting and pacing. I am sure the real-life events must have been more dramatic than they are rendered here. There is something rather episodic and shapeless about the book. As in a lot of historical fiction, there is too much telling and too little showing. This is particularly true of the closing stages, when we move away from Margaret almost entirely and end up reading pages of rather dry – and pretty familiar – reports of the King’s setting aside of Katherine in favour of Anne Boleyn. That the novel’s final word is given to Mary underscores the fact that Margaret’s story gets an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending.
Overall, there is enough here to arouse interest in the historical figure of Margaret, but little of that interest is generated by the novel itself, with its flawed characterisations, dry prose style and bloodless depiction of Margaret’s intimate relationships.