The Queen’s Fool is, IMHO, the best of Philippa Gregory’s six Tudor novels. It follows the story of Hannah, a Jewish girl in the reign of King Edward V, Queen Mary and the dawn of Queen Elizabeth’s era. What’s noteworthy about it is that it’s one of the few narratives that portrays Mary in a positive light, as opposed to the cruel, callous religious fanatic who she is usually presented as, who persecuted people not only for not being Catholic, but for not being Catholic enough.
Hannah is Edward’s, and then Mary’s Fool (basically a court jester) who also has a gift – or curse – as a seer. In a way, it is an empowering role as the Fool can express opinions others wouldn’t dare and then claim to be an idiot who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. She has premonitions about Edward’s death, Mary’s ill-luck with conceiving and eventually her death and Elizabeth’s ascension. Both sisters are quite fond of her. I don’t know how realistic it was for as staunchly Catholic a woman as Mary was to be so tolerant as to have a Jew, even a discreet one like Hannah, in her inner circle, but I liked that Gregory’s Mary had the attitude of ‘well, I think your soul will rot in eternal damnation, but that’s your prerogative’ rather than exclusively being someone who had people burned at the stake for not being of the right religious persuasion.
But what I found really interesting was the relationship between Mary and her younger sister Elizabeth. The sisters have often been portrayed as bitter rivals, resulting from Mary’s religious intolerance and twenty-year grudge against Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, for Anne’s ascension over Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon. Gregory presents a relationship that seems to be pretty close to reality; that of Mary and Elizabeth being close, with a love/hate relationship existing between them that’s common in siblings. When a Protestant faction tries to put their cousin Jane Grey on the throne, Mary raises an army to defend what she considers to be both her and Elizabeth’s birthright. During Edward’s reign and the early days of her own, Mary considers Elizabeth to be her heir, the rightful claimant to the throne after herself, and does not blame Elizabeth for Anne’s actions against her and Katherine, or Henry’s at Anne’s instigation.
The trouble starts when Elizabeth tries to play things both ways – to remain Mary’s heir while paying the thinnest veneer of lip service of Catholicism. I found Gregory’s Elizabeth to be quite lacking in any personal convictions beyond becoming Queen; she would neither embrace Catholicism wholeheartedly or abdicate to be true to her own religious beliefs. Compared to Mary, Elizabeth comes across as being unwilling to stand for something and risk being on the losing team; while Mary is raising an army to defend both of their birthrights, Elizabeth is playing sick in case Mary fails and she is seen as guilty by association; while Mary is staunch in her religious beliefs, Elizabeth seems more concerned with what will gain her the most popularity with the English subjects. We see Elizabeth grow anxious as Mary conceives – any child Mary has would be named her heir before Elizabeth – and pleased as first Mary’s pregnancy is revealed to be a phantom one, and then her health deteriorates. Elizabeth certainly wasn’t the first monarch to take pleasure out of their predecessor dying, but it’s unusual to see Elizabeth portrayed as anything but a sweet girl who was as much the victim of her sister’s religious fanaticism as any other English subject.
As with all historical fiction, we have no idea what kind of women Mary and Elizabeth were. I suspect Gregory has been too flattering with Mary and too harsh with Elizabeth. Nonetheless, it is nice to see both a potential kinder, more tolerant side of a woman who has gone down as history as ‘Bloody Mary’ as well as an exploration of the idea that Elizabeth wasn’t the squeaky-clean heroine she is often portrayed as. Ms. Gregory, why can’t you write more books like this, instead of Wideacre and The Virgin’s Lover?