The Last Tudor
Philippa Gregory – author of the White Queen and White Princess novels, and of The Other Boleyn Girl – needs no introduction from me. This somewhat disastrous fifteenth tome in her series chronicling the lives of the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties sweeps us from the reign of Edward I to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and covers the lives of Lady Jane Grey and her sisters Katherine and Mary, three opposites united in their battle for freedom… while also failing to tell us much about them.
At first, The Last Tudor seems to be Jane’s novel. We follow her through her haughty, scholarly, religion-perfumed youth and her near betrothal to Ned Seymour and then the desperate marriages of herself and her sisters into other high born protestant families in light of the incipient death of fifteen year old Edward Tudor. Jane marries the wan mama’s boy Guildford Dudley, Katherine marries handsome but sickly Henry Lord Herbert, and tiny Mary the pockmarked Arthur Grey, who is over ten years her senior and has little patience for her eight year old gamboling. When Edward VI dies, he passes the throne on to an extremely reluctant Jane and Jane – as we well know – only lasts a little over a week as Queen of England before being beheaded for treason and making way for the reign of Mary Tudor.
On her execution, the novel switches to Katherine’s point of view, and we watch as the two sisters left behind live forever in the shadow of their greedy and proud family’s deeds – and forever under the scrutiny of Elizabeth Tudor’s jealousy. They could not be more different. The fluttering, beauty-obsessed and helplessly romantic Katherine, soon loosened from her bond to Herbert, ends up getting married – behind Elizabeth’s back – to Edward Seymour in a lusty love match. For this illicit marriage she is imprisoned in the Tower of London for possible treason, but manages to produce two male heirs anyway – and found the bloodline that has produced the current line of British monarchs. Meanwhile, the merry, life-lusty little person Mary aligns herself in a marriage with the commoner Thomas Keyes, a giant gatekeeper and widower, also to Elizabeth’s intense displeasure and censure.
You know what to expect from Gregory by now, and if you like what she does what I have to say will likely not dissuade you from picking up this volume. If you like her books, you’ll enjoy all of the usual Gregory perks in this one – an urgent, melodramatic narrative voice; bittersweet love-hate relationships between doomed sisters and even more thoroughly doomed romantic relationships; soapy deeds and political gaming that quickly blows up in the faces of the bold; simplifications to the story that ruin its scope; some moments of total, ahistorical WTF-ery that will leave your mind boggling; proud women who martyr themselves in the name of love but get the last laugh as they birth a future dynasty and depose their enemies in the long run. History repeats itself, as does the author.
There’s one big fly in the ointment this time – two of the three Grey sisters are so largely unsympathetic as to inspire annoyance in the reader. Surely Jane Grey was more interesting than the shrill, preaching child forever shouting about papists Gregory portrays her as. Surely, Katherine Grey was not such a cotton-headed, shallow, immature idiot whom Gregory manages to suggest starved herself to death as a sort of temper tantrum because she was only allowed to bring up one of her sons. Only Mary emerges as a character of any depth or worth, though she too is something of a snob, putting herself above another little person who was the queen’s fool at court, (and Mary was a hunchback of small stature, not a little person as Gregory writes here). In any event none of them really change or develop at all though they go through multiple traumas – most of it due to their stubborn foolishness.
It doesn’t help that their chief opponent is drawn as a one note cartoon villain. Seriously- don’t read this book if you have even a passing sense of admiration for Elizabeth I or a balanced opinion in regard to her reign and actions, as Gregory’s hatred for Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and all Tudors manages to taint her portrayal of his youngest daughter. Mary I had Jane, her husband and father executed and had Protestants slaughtered by the hundreds – and she comes off as a positive saint compared to Elizabeth I, who is portrayed as a cross between Satan and Jezebel. While it’s understandable that the Grey siblings wouldn’t like Elizabeth at all because of the way her choices wreak havoc on their lives, Gregory never takes care to balance their opinions with other observations, which results in Elizabeth looking like a shallow ogre. Even worse, most of the book is dedicated to rants against her and chronicling all of the ways in which she was repulsive, terrible, rapacious or selfish; it feels more like a novel-long rant about what a terrible person Elizabeth was as opposed to a chronicling of the Grey girls’ lives. This notion leads to terrible narrative choices, as when Gregory outright has Jane blame a barely teenaged and completely out of royal favor Elizabeth I for seducing and causing the execution of Thomas Seymour (yes, Gregory’s narrative boner for Seymour continues to bob ever onward, even though he was a likely rapist and an even more likely manipulator of women and children). The characters are magically endowed with the ability to see into the future, almost as if they’re acting as the author’s mouthpiece, as well. The characterization was less shallow on Reign, for heaven’s sake.
As for the actual romantic content, Mary and Thomas’ romance is rushed and underdeveloped; though they are kind to each other it lacks the proper spark that makes any of Mary’s subsequent actions make sense. I did believe and generally like Katherine and Ned’s relationship but they too often felt like the teenagers they were.
The Last Tudor is not the best thing in either the Gregory or Plantagenet/Tudor canons. It’s not as bad as The Virgin’s Lover nor as filled with inventions as The Taming of the Queen, but it ends up being an unappealing, strident slog.