Title: The King’s Curse
Author: Philippa Gregory
No. of Pages: 624
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Touchstone Books
Release Date: 9 September 2014
Bottom Line: So biased and just plain bad
“Regarded as yet another threat to the volatile King Henry VII’s claim to the throne, Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York (known as the White Princess) and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, is married off to a steady and kind Lancaster supporter—Sir Richard Pole. For his loyalty, Sir Richard is entrusted with the governorship of Wales, but Margaret’s contented daily life is changed forever with the arrival of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon. Margaret soon becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the honeymooning couple, hiding her own royal connections in service to the Tudors.
After the sudden death of Prince Arthur, Katherine leaves for London a widow, and fulfills her deathbed promise to her husband by marrying his brother, Henry VIII. Margaret’s world is turned upside down by the surprising summons to court, where she becomes the chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. But this charmed life of the wealthiest and “holiest” woman in England lasts only until the rise of Anne Boleyn, and the dramatic deterioration of the Tudor court. Margaret has to choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical king, or to her beloved queen; to the religion she loves or the theology which serves the new masters. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret Pole has to find her own way as she carries the knowledge of an old curse on all the Tudors.”
Thoughts: In The King’s Curse, Ms. Gregory makes it extremely obvious that she is no fan of the Tudor family. In her ongoing version of the Cousins’ War, there is a good side and a bad side, and the Tudor family is most definitely the bad side. Her sympathy for the remaining Plantegenets, especially Margaret Pole, around whom the entire novel revolves, is not only obvious but also mentioned repeatedly. History is never as unequivocally black and white as Ms. Gregory makes it appear, which makes her portrayal of Henry VIII’s reign disturbing in its bias.
Then again, does anyone expect otherwise from a Ms. Gregory novel? She may pick fascinating subjects, but her storytelling does not bring history alive so much as it beats it to death with a blunt object. She has a way of driving home her point that is anything but subtle. Readers know they can skim the story or even skip entire sections without missing anything because she repeats herself so often.
She also tends to overdo the sympathy. Margaret Pole is on of the highest-born Plantagnents remaining in England. Having seen her brother executed as a threat to the Crown under Henry VII, she never forgets how perilous her situation is in the Tudor realm. Yet, Margaret is anything but humble and quiet. She is arrogant and smug. She prides herself on her lineage and detests anything that lowers her image in the eyes of the people. She may hate the king, and in many ways she does for what his family has done to hers and what he does to his wife and daughter, but she cannot stand to be away from court and outside of the king’s sphere of influence. She is about as unsympathetic as it gets given her propensity to worry over her material goods and her lineage more than anything else.
While Ms. Gregory’s novels always feature strong women who managed to dictate the terms in which they lived in spite of society being male-dominated, one gets the impression that there was not as much to Margaret Pole’s story as there was with some of her other characters. Yes, she was present at several key moments in history and rose up to become one of the wealthiest people, let alone women, in all of England. However, she does not do much other than dictate her sons’ actions. Much of the action occurs offstage because her sons are the ones doing all of the work. She boasts often of her ability to rule her lands, but even there, as a lady and owner of multiple estates, she is not doing any of the work but ordering others. Her lack of direct presence in most of the key proceedings makes for a rather dull story. It is difficult to feel her fear and confusion in this modern era, especially among readers for whom the idea of a monarchial rule is anathema to the society in which s/he was raised. In addition, since one sees little of the action directly but only as one of her sons is telling her what occurred, it is even more difficult to get caught up in her plight. Adding to the destructive mix is Margaret’s refusal to take action against the king. Much of the novel is her railing against Henry’s proclamations and rulings but doing nothing else. She is one of the first ones to capitulate and swear her allegiance over and over again. This lack of a backbone is unusual in a Gregory heroine and bothersome because in every other aspect of her life she is quite formidable.
Upon finishing The King’s Curse, one will not help but wonder if Ms. Gregory is finally ready to put the entire Plantagenent and Tudor line to rest. The stories have come full circle now as she ends much as she began, with Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir. In fact, most of The King’s Curse feels much like a rehashing of her earlier novels simply told from someone else’s point of view. Given how poorly written the story is and how unsympathetic Margaret Pole is throughout most of the novel, readers will not just wonder but hope that Ms. Gregory moves on to some other period in history. It is long past time to do so.