Saturday 1 September 2012

She-Wolves: a review by Mary Hoffman

Not the speediest of reviews since Faber published the hardback of this fine book in 2010 and the paperback came out last year. But at that time my "history" shelves were bulging. Books on the history of medieval and Renaissance Italy, books on Shakespeare, books on the Plantagenet period of English history were beginning to engulf my study and I couldn't accommodate one more volume.

So I commissioned a new bookcase! (We live nowhere near an IKEA) When it came, after many false starts and alarums, books were collected up from every corner, shelf and box in my study (each book I am writing or planning has its own box, but that's another story) and installed in the new bookcase.

Then, and only then, could I buy She-Wolves but it was nearly my birthday and a daughter wanted to give it to me so I had to wait. And then like all writers, researchers and reviewers, I had to add it to the tottering heaps of the tbr.

Finally, I was able to open Helen Castor's book and from then on resented every moment I had to close it again. It is one of the most readable history books I have ever read.

It begins, unexpectedly, with the death of fifteen-year-old Edward the Sixth. But you soon see the relevance. All his possible heirs were female and England had never had a female monarch before.  But from here we go back to Matilda, the daughter of Henry the First and granddaughter of William the Conqueror and  see how close we came to it nearly four hundred years earlier.

It might seem extraordinary to us new Elizabethans, who are still fascinated by the first ruler of that name and live with the knowledge of the sixty-year+ reign of Victoria, but in 1135, it was by no means certain that the oldest son would inherit the crown, let alone a daughter. The conqueror was succeeded by his second son, William Rufus, even though his oldest, Robert "Cuthose" still lived. Robert was given the duchy of Normandy instead and for the next several hundred years the history of England and France are entwined.

Henry, the third son, when William Rufus was killed by a stray arrow while out hunting in the New Forest, nipped in quickly and got himself crowned king of England. But Robert and his son continued to contest his claim.

Oh, I must stop! It's all so fascinating. Matilda was gazumped by her cousin Stephen, who wasn't even the oldest son of the Conqueror's youngest son, but it was her own child who became Henry the Second when Stephen died.

And so on through the other medieval queens: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret (Marguerite) of Anjou, who exercised what power they had through their husbands (respectively Henry the Second, Edward the Second and Henry the Sixth) and their sons.

The strangest is Isabella, who married at twelve a man twice her age and at their wedding banquet had to witness him giving away their rich wedding presents to the man sitting next to him, his favourite Piers Gaveston.  When Gaveston came to the inevitable sticky end, he was replaced in the king's affections by Hugh le Despenser but Isabella was older then and had produced a son, the jack in the pack that gave all these women a trump card to play with.

(Matilda's epitaph had been the "daughter, wife and mother" of kings).

From BBC website
By the time I read the book, I had already seen the associated BBC TV series. And if you saw and enjoyed that, you will get even more from the book. It's always great to get the visual references but I find all TV documentaries tend to re-iterate their points many times (a policy decision I'm sure) while an author is not so restricted in her text.

The TV series didn't use the framing device but Helen Castor brings us back very elegantly to Edward the Sixth's deathbed, after the story of the saddest queen, Margaret (Shakespeare's "she-wolf") who loses everything: husband, son and any hope of her descendants ruling England.

Edward's next heir should have been Mary Tudor but she had been declared illegitimate when Henry the Eighth divorced Catherine of Aragion and married Anne Boleyn.

Even more importantly, she remained attached to the Old Religion (since the New had robbed her and her mother of their rights) so Edward and his councilllors had come up with the bizarre Device that made poor Lady Jane Grey queen for just over a week and later led to the execution of this blameless political pawn.

Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry the Eighth's youngest sister Mary and her mother was still alive, but she was a Protestant and that made her the most acceptable of the possible female heirs.

But Mary was having none of it and it was she who became the first female monarch of England crowned in her own right. Because of the shortness of her reign, the lack of an heir in spite of two phantom pregnancies and most of all because of the bloodiness with which she pursued the short-lived restoration of her religious denomination, this important fact about her has sunk into neglect.

It doesn't help of course that she was succeeded by her brilliant, charismatic half-sister Elizabeth!

But I am grateful to Helen Castor for reminding me of this among many other important points about the history of women and the English throne.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. But, er, Lady Jane Grey was actually ,Mary Tudor's granddaughter, not daughter, Jane's Mum was Frances Brandon, Mary's daughter by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was, I vaguely recall, one of Henry VIII's drinking buddies. ;-) Jane is a sad figure, an intellectual who just wanted her books, not all the politics that ended up killing her.

Mary Hoffman said...

Thank you Sue! I have corrected it; it was a typo. I did know that Jane was Frances Brandon's daughter.

I agree she was a terribly sad figure and doomed once Edward and co had decided their religion would be safe in her hands.

Mark Burgess said...

Interesting review, Mary, thank you. Helen Castor certainly seems to have the knack of writing lucid and enjoyable prose; her book about the Pastons, 'Blood Red Roses' is also excellent.

adele said...

If I find I have to write about Eleanor then this is the book I'll consult! Loved the tv prog. The Castor sisters are mighty talented!

Penny Dolan said...

Enjoyed the tv series but very pleased to find out there's much more in the book itself.

I also hate those "in case you missed it, we'll tell you again" re-play moments when one could as easily be hearing & seeing MORE about the interesting subject.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hmm, wonder if the TV series is available on DVD yet? And, hey, I have that book about the Pastons, had forgotten the author's name. Nice!

jongleuse said...

I have this on my bookshelf and must get down to it! TV series totally bypassed me but I see some episodes still on inlayer. I have always found Eleanor of Aquitaine fascinating, having married the heirs to the throne of both France and England! Has anyone else read the E.L Konigsburg YA retelling of her life A Proud taste for Scarlet and Miniver?

Marie-Louise said...

running on BBC4 on Sat nights at the moment.

Mary Hoffman said...

Ah, thanks, Marie-Louise; that's why it's on iPlayer. I think the Pastons book is called Blood and Roses and I plan to get that too.

Agree about the clever Castor sisters!

H.M. Castor said...

Lol, that's very kind of you, Mary & Adele! I don't know about a DVD, but Helen told me the other day that the series is now available to buy on iTunes.

Leslie Wilson said...

I must get 'She-wolves.' And women in power are still considered a bit dodgy, aren't they? I mean prime ministers, presidents, and so on. In those days - what did John Knox say in his 'First Blast of the Trumpet?' 'It is a monster in Nature that a woman should rule over a man;? Or something like that.

Unknown said...

"She Wolves" is an excellent book, which is never dull in its presentation. It delivers an outstanding account of these remarkable women.

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