Note: Even though this is listed as Book 8 in the series, it works just fine as a stand alone novel.
Henry VIII, King of England, had two sisters – Margaret (his elder) and Mary (his younger). These two ladies, along with Henry’s first wife (Katherine of Aragon), will form a unique sisterhood of queens, sometimes rivals, sometimes allies. This book is told solely from Margaret’s point of view, starting in her childhood and carrying through her three marriages.
Over the years, I’ve dabbled in books about the Tudors. There are tons of them out there, both fiction and non-fiction. However, few of them have more than the bare bones concerning Margaret. So I was tinkled pink when Philippa Gregory came out with this book. Margaret wasn’t considered the great beauty her younger sister was. She didn’t wield as much power as Katherine. She wasn’t Henry’s favorite sibling. However, she still played an important role in Scotland, and hence in Scottish-English relations.
We learn early on that Margaret is betrothed to James, King of Scotland, who is nearly twice her age. So she has to wait until she is 14 to go to Scotland. As a teen, Margaret’s concerns are rather narrow and self-serving. From Margaret’s point of view, there’s competition between the three ladies (Mary, Margaret, and Katherine) for attention and their beauty factors into that. While Katherine received a large, beautiful wedding to Arthur (Henry’s older brother), Margaret gets a small, perfunctory wedding at age 12 with a stand-in for James. This is just one example of how Margaret measures her worth (or lack of it) to the English court.
Margaret’s character starts off as a mixture of naive, self-absorbed, and driven. Indeed, sometimes I felt her selfish attitude was going to do her in! But Gregory is such a good writer that you can see there is something more there, waiting to blossom, in this character. Once Margaret goes off to Scotland, she has to deal with hardships she never faced as a treasured English princess. The Scots had big, bushy beards! James, King of Scotland, has bastard babies! The Scottish Lords actually have to rule and work, including James! Indeed, it was a bit of a culture shock for her. She holds to her English superiority, but as the years pass, and she faces some true hardships herself, her attitudes shifts a bit, and a kernel of wisdom is formed.
Now I didn’t always agree with Margaret’s decisions or her reasons but I also have the historical knowledge. She didn’t have that, obviously, but she also lacked reliable communication and news from the rest of Europe. In this light, most of her decisions make sense. By the end of the book, I felt Margaret was someone I would have enjoyed being friends with. She had grown from that self-absorbed child we met in the first few chapters.
Throughout the book, Margaret, Mary, and Katherine write each other frequently, so you can’t help but compare the three of them. All three married more than once, each married for love at some point, and all three lost babies to illness. Also, each suffered ‘poverty’ at some point. Now, poverty to a royal is a little different than poverty for the masses. Indeed, they still have servants, even if they can’t pay them. They still have some fine clothing, even if they have to patch the sleeves. Still, it was interesting to see how each dealt with it differently.
Margaret does have a few awe-inspiring moments in the book. There are times where she faces down Scottish lords, a besieging army, or a very difficult run for the border while several months pregnant. These are the moments when I liked her best, when she was under the most pressure. She shone in these moments, and that made it easier for me to excuse her petty side.
The author includes a note at the end about how much of her book is factual versus fiction. I was surprised to learn that there is little historical information on Margaret beyond the bare bones of her life. The note did explain a bit about how Margaret’s decisions seemed to show her changing direction often. In my opinion, Gregory did a great job showing us how those swift changes in loyalty could make sense at the time. Indeed, I quite enjoyed this novel, including the self-absorbed aspects of the main character. Margaret was raised to think highly of herself and the story wouldn’t ring true without that attitude.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
The Narration: Bianca Amato did an excellent job with this book. I really liked her various accents (English, Scottish, Spanish, French). She also did a great job with the variety of emotions the characters went through. Her male voices were believable.