tisdag 4 november 2014

In two minds about Gregory

I'm currently suffering from something of a Philippa Gregory overdose. In a pathetic attempt to read a little more fiction in the Swedish language, I'm reading Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance - in Swedish. At the same time, I'm trying to finish watching the TV series The White Queen, but it's proving rather a hard slog.

My first impression of the series, when viewing one of the episodes live in England more than a year ago, proves to have been more or less correct. The characters talk politics all the time, so it's a mercy that the politics are as interesting as they are. I do enjoy seeing Anne Neville portrayed as a plucky girl with more than a little of her father's ambition and ruthlessness, rather than as a meek wife wringing her hands and wondering what exactly her darling hubby's up to (true, Shakespeare's Anne was hardly meek, but then she was more or less a made-up character). But the serious tone of the series - I think the German word for it is bierernst - without any light relief, or much human interest as we only see the characters as politicians, makes it hard to watch much of it in one go. I usually follow a White Queen episode with a jaunty Doctor Who episode, to cheer me up. It puts some perspective on comic elements in TV drama: I'm not too keen on the more quirky storylines in for instance Downton (like Molesley getting into a jam or Mrs Patmore doing battle with modern kitchen devices), but maybe they are necessary to get the whole mood of the series right. You can't have meaty love stories all the time. I suppose.

Deborah Ross, The Spectator's film critic, nicknamed the Duke of Norfolk in The Other Boleyn Girl "the Duke of Exposition". It's an expression that often comes to my mind when watching The White Queen, and it's a useful label for a character that carries more than his or her fair share of plot exposition. In The Boleyn Inheritance, we meet the original himself.

Norfolk expositions quite a lot in The Boleyn Inheritance as well, but above all, he's the villain of the piece. If the film The Other Boleyn Girl is anything to go by, he plays roughly the same part in this novel as in the earlier Boleyn book: first he plots to bring a girl on the throne, and then, when she gets into trouble, he not only abandons her but actively contributes to putting her head on the block. But we only meet the political plotter, not the man. I've no idea what makes him tick, and my villain-loving heart remains unmoved. Of the characters in The Boleyn Inheritance, only the three progatonists are really fleshed out as characters: Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford a.k.a. Jane Boleyn, widow (as she keeps reminding us) of not-so-devoted husband George Boleyn and sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn.

I like the unexpected angles in Gregory's tales: she often has some fresh theory about historical events we think we know everything about. What if, for instance, Catherine of Aragon wasn't a virgin after all when she married Henry VIII, but had actually consummated her marriage to his brother (Gregory spins a story out of this in The Constant Princess)? What if Margaret Beaufort conspired with her unreliable husband and Buckingham to have the princes in the Tower killed and then put the blame on Richard (I love this theory)? What if one of the princes was actually a fake prince? Gregory is the very opposite of those dry, killjoy  historians who want to destroy every juicy historical scandal and expose it as a "myth": because she is a fiction writer, she can afford to believe whatever makes for the best story. Even historical pieces of gossip considered outlandish by most will be seized upon and used by her, which sometimes seems a bit unfair (come on, Elizabeth Woodville actually a witch?).

With The Boleyn Inheritance, Gregory seems on fairly stable ground when portraying Anne of Cleves not as the "Flanders Mare" of legend but as a brave, intelligent and, yes, pretty young woman who is punished for reacting most unromantically when Henry visits her disguised. Catherine Howard is predictably silly, though more sympathetically portrayed than in many a Tudor yarn, and Jane Boleyn predictably bitchy. Of the three, Catherine Howard is the most fun to read about: her reflections, typical of an airheaded teenage girl, often serve as the light relief that is missing in The White Queen. But as she loses the King's favour, there is little in the way of fun and games for her either. The novel is too long, and some themes - Jane Boleyn's obsessing about her dead husband and sister-in-law, for instance - are hammered home a trifle. But it's a painless way of getting to know a little more about two of Henry VIII's less famous wives. A reader who feels up for some Tudor gossip, but not of the high-literary Hilary Mantel kind, could do worse. Just don't expect to care passionately about the various Dukes of Exposition.