An enjoyable read, that doesn't quite match Gregory's best work.
Three Sisters, Three Queens is the latest book by Philippa Gregory. Best known for her series of books focusing on the Tudor kings and queens, and the preceding tumult of the Cousins War, Gregory has always focused on telling the tales of the women forced into the shadows of their male relatives by the history books. This time, Gregory takes on the tale of Margaret Tudor, elder sister to Henry VIII, and also Queen of Scotland through marriage to James IV. While taking on the first person perspective of Margaret, Gregory also interweaves her narrative with the two other queens titled in the book – her sister, Mary Dowager Queen of France, and her brother Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. In doing so, she charts the lives of these women surrounded by one of the most tempestuous monarchs in British history.
But this is not the story of Henry VIII – he appears infrequently as a moody man child, and his influence over these women is palpable throughout. Instead, our attention is fixed on Margaret, as she transitions from being a young bride to a wiley older monarch, to a widow protecting the birthright of her son, to a woman on the run with an untrustworthy husband. Margaret’s story is told alongside the stories of the other two queens, whose lives are conveyed through message and letter to their sister, the two together in London, while Margaret faces the trouble of protecting the throne for her infant son after her husband is killed in battle with the English. The stories of these women seem to rise and fall in concert – there is never a point in the text where all three are comfortable and happy. Instead they are subject to the capricious whims of Henry VIII and his fellow male monarchs and lords. This book really hammers home the insecurity that a woman faced in this period, thanks to her dependence on family and husband.
Gregory tells Margaret’s story with style and her customary flare, and it is easy to get carried away with the twists and turns of her life, particularly if you have little knowledge of this particular female figure. Easy to read, Gregory provides another fiction which combines the excitement of history with suggested emotions and motivations. As Gregory notes at the end of the text, Margaret Tudor is a remarkably under studied figure in this time period, and Gregory succeeds in fleshing her out, making her an intriguing prospect to research.
Yet as much as Gregory makes Margaret interesting, her characterisation in Three Sisters, Three Queens lacks a certain kind of spark that we have seen in Gregory’s previous novels. Compared to the ferocious Margaret mother of Henry VII, and the canny Elizabeth Woodville – both grandmothers to the woman focused on here – Margaret seems less substantial. This is largely due to the lack of primary material featuring her, but nonetheless, her flighty nature can get a little irritating at points. She seems to make little progress in terms of character right until the end of the novel, which means her story feels a little unfulfilling. However, this book is still a great addition to the body of work that Gregory has created. While it is not her most memorable fictional work, it is still an enjoyable and compelling read.
Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory, published by Simon and Schuster, is available to buy now.