Monday, 12 December 2011

Thoughts on... The Lady of the Rivers

I've long been a fan of Phillipa Gregory.  I started, as most readers would, with her novel The Other Boleyn Girl in 2007- before it was made into a film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson.  I believe that this was the beginning of my love affair with Tudor history.

In 2008, after reading nearly all of Gregory's Tudor Court novels, I wrote an Original Solo Peformance for my TEE drama exam in which I portrayed all six wives of Henry the Eighth.  In 2010, I watched all four seasons of Showtime's The Tudors.  I read Booker Prize winning "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel.

But what is it about these long dead royals that have us so captivated?  And why, in our modern representations of them, do we feel the need to make their lives so... sexy?

I believe there are several factors, first among them being that sex sells.  Of course, movies like the Other Boleyn Girl and shows like The Tudors show us a clean, exorbitant world in which sex is pleasurable for everyone and not just for making babies.  There is no reference to the fact that people didn't necessarily bathe or wash their hair regularly, or that the woman's role was to please the man in many cases.

Another factor, I believe, is to use lust to explain the turmoil of the times.  There was a lot of fighting in the periods I have read about.  There were wars, usurpations of the throne, infidelity, witchcraft, people burned and beheaded... the list goes on.  Playing this chaos against a backdrop of lust is a way in which we can explain the frightening uncontrollable nature of the times.

Finally, I believe that writers like Gregory give women a stronger focus in their histories, where the historians who have gone before them have largely ignored the roles that they played.  Yes, Henry the Eighth had six wives... but what influence did each wife have on Henry?  What role did these women play in the decisions that he made?

Phillipa Gregory is a talented historical fiction writer.  In The Lady of the Rivers, she writes about the Plantagenets, the predecessors of the Tudors, and does so in a way that is beautiful and relatable without being cheapened or sexualised.  She does not attempt to impose control over the chaos, but rather uses it.  And she researches the women, the observers, the silent partners, and gives them a voice they have otherwise been denied.  Jacquetta, the dowager duchess of Bedford, has appeared in her previous two Cousin's War novels.  In The Lady of the Rivers, she is both the same character and different.  The reader is allowed to get close to her in a way that was deliberately denied in both The White Queen and the Red Queen.  Gregory gives you a history lesson without putting you to sleep.  But facts are there for the aware reader to garner.  History and magic mingle in a delectable fashion.  And if you want to read this book now, can't wait for paperback... Big W has the hardback out cheap.

I give this novel four out of five slumbering Kings of England.

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