Good as Hell

The White Queen BY Philippa Gregory. New York: Atria Books. 415 pages. $18.
The Red Queen BY Philippa Gregory. New York: Atria Books. 400 pages. $18.

THE TUDOR ROSE ON THE JACKET OF THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT—the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I’ve looked forward to reading for five long years—has watched me like a cyclops eye since the novel’s publication in March. Or, more likely, I first noticed the emblem’s monstrous quality in early April, when nights in New York grew more cinematically wretched and scary: sleepless, ambulance sirens nonstop. I did, at one point, open the book and read the first page, standing in the kitchen. “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away,” Mantel starts, putting us at the scene of Anne Boleyn’s execution and installing us, with the closest of third-person narrations, in Cromwell’s head—which will eventually also be sliced off—to witness his enthralling detachment up close.

It’s not that I don’t have the stomach for it. When Cromwell observes that the ladies who attend to Henry VIII’s second wife on the scaffold “slide in the gore and stoop over the narrow carcass,” I think, with a kind of gossipy and almost malevolent interest, That’s probably little Catherine Carey. She’s the one in Mantel’s telling, I speculate, who shudders when she takes Boleyn’s head, wrapped in linen, from the executioner. Carey is the dead queen’s niece, the king’s bastard child (some say) with Anne’s sister Mary. And Mary is, of course, the canny first-person protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s 2001 The Other Boleyn Girl—another best seller, very different, also exactly to my taste.

By day, I think of the two-tone flower’s ring of white petals on Mantel’s novel more like a light at the end of the tunnel than a menace—the symbol of a future when reading will no longer seem impossible. But, for now, I barely read. I listen almost continuously to audio versions of Gregory’s fifteen-book series of Plantagenet and Tudor Novels. (The Other Boleyn Girl, written first, comes ninth chronologically.) I’ve done this before, in moments that last around a month, when I can’t think of any music I want to hear and I know the internet is killing me. I turned to the author’s accounts of the Cousins’ War and beyond (told in the voices of female historical figures about whom little is known) after the 2016 election—not immediately, but when disbelief’s analgesic effects finally wore off; I retreated to them again when the skies grew dark from wildfire smoke very close to where I grew up. In hellish times, maybe an image of heaven is too absurd, even sarcastic, a snow globe floating past you in a flood of lava. The fifteenth century’s miserable extremes are, in contrast, credible, immersive, appropriately macabre.

The White Queen, season 1, episode 9, 2013. Princess Elizabeth (Freya Mavor) and Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson). BBC One
The White Queen, season 1, episode 9, 2013. Princess Elizabeth (Freya Mavor) and Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson). BBC One

This time around, I began with The Red Queen, from 2010, which is the story of Henry VIII’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Beaufort—possibly Gregory’s cruelest narrator, and subject to some of the cruelest things possible. Eyes closed on the couch, I listened to the Lancastrian aristocrat’s soliloquy of self-serving piety and wild ambition. It begins when she’s just nine and spans decades. She’s married at twelve to Henry VI’s half brother Edmund Tudor, who soon dies from the plague (good news, in a way). A widow at thirteen, she gives birth after two days of labor, during which, to move things along, she’s tossed, screaming, in a blanket. And she learns of her mother’s instructions to let her die, if necessary, to save the baby—her family’s best hope to thwart Yorkist usurpers.

Or, sometimes, I wouldn’t completely follow along. I’d instead let Beaufort’s story—her many humiliations and her long, convoluted crawl to victory and vengeance—become a steady nightmare in the background. I’d doze off, losing the thread, then jolt awake at a note of alarm in the reader’s voice, a loud siren outside, or a spike of dread from nowhere. Then I’d put on a mask made from a T-shirt, and orange kitchen gloves, and stand in the doorway of the bedroom—the sickroom—gripping my phone in case it was time to call 911. I’d listen for the rise and fall of a breath, then another, and another, until it seemed safe to take myself back to the couch—to the desolation of Pembroke Castle, that is, or the slaughter at Tewkesbury Abbey. My phone, now held more loosely in my hand, conveyed the medieval horror calmly.

Sometimes, Gregory abandons women to show us, in third-person passages, the world they’re rarely permitted to see—outside of the suffocating candlelit chambers, away from the pacing, praying, tapestries, and whispered information. Her career-long portrait of feminine boredom and anxiety is thrown into relief by the land, the weather, and unfathomable violence.

“For two long hours, while the snow churned into red slush under their feet, they locked together like a plow grinding through rocky ground,” she writes about the 1461 Battle of Towton. Here, the woman narrator gives way to a man who reads the third-person interlude, in which Beaufort’s gentle second husband, Henry Stafford, very reluctantly goes to war. He fights for Lancaster, with and against his countrymen, a senseless butchery “in snow that whirled around them like feathers in a poultry shop.” His side loses, but the author makes clear that no one wins. In the end, when he stands exhausted by a river, corpses tumbling in its current, he sticks out his tongue to catch a snowflake. We’re meant to see a flicker of reprieve as well as irony in his childlike, automatic gesture.

Maybe Stafford’s catching a snowflake is kind of like my reading (hearing) about his doing so. Neither of us feels much better, though of course the consolation, if that’s the word, that I find in The Red Queen etc. is not as fleeting as his is by the river, and my situation not nearly as dire.

IN QUARANTINE, I’ve wept with laughter at Catherine O’Hara on Schitt’s Creek (her accent, the outfits), briefly obliterating all awareness of the present circumstances. I’ve watched all nine and a half hours of Shoah, achieving a state of cataleptic serenity and mourning, awash with gratitude for the minor problems of my stupid lucky life. But most significantly, most strangely, I keep one foot in the intoxicating gloom of Gregory’s medieval Europe even though I don’t—especially if I take a look at the sentences on the page—think the writing is that great.

When Mantel (who won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments of her Tudor-era epic) spoke, in a 2017 lecture, about the perils of historical fiction—of imposing anachronistic values on the past—she asked: “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?” It’s hard not to suspect she was thinking of Gregory when she continued, “This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.” Although, according to Gregory, Mantel clarified in an email that she wasn’t talking about her books, Mantel wouldn’t have been entirely wrong if she had been. (Gregory, for her part, says she loved Wolf Hall. Referring to the book’s unpromising premise—“middle-aged men squabbling about power”—she praised Mantel for making “what I think of as the worst subject in the world completely fascinating.” Honestly, same.)

Reading The White Queen (2009), which is perhaps Gregory’s one true bodice ripper (and the basis for a 2013 BBC One miniseries), you can see what Mantel might sniff at. When Gregory depicts the 1471 Battle of Barnet from the winning side, she grants her women protagonists supernatural powers. Elizabeth Woodville—the wife of temporarily deposed York king Edward IV—stands at the window with her mother, sick with worry about her husband at war. The two women, descendants of the water goddess Melusina, it’s said, breathe into the cold air, forming a fog that spreads to the ridge where the Lancaster forces have massed. In the early morning, looking down the slope for Edward’s army, the men see “nothing below them but a strange inland sea of cloud”—they’re doomed. You could certainly argue it’s not likely the women could control the weather. You could also say, more generally, that in doggedly representing the intensity of women’s interior lives, Gregory inevitably distorts our view of their social power—that’s part of her books’ embroidered, airport appeal.

I considered saying, for the purpose of this essay, that I find in her literary project—with its portrayal of royal grifters and suck-ups, its backdrop of pestilence, fanaticism, and war—an illuminating mirror-world. But the opposite is true: The point, for me, is not to reflect, but to stop thinking. Her novels are something I put on, a looping narrative that proceeds with or without my undivided attention, a symbolic representation of the multiverse’s promise of infinite realities, all equally unreal. In one reality, good-enough writing is great; fifteen books are better than three. Men may control property, but women have a monopoly on meaning.

By looking at Gregory too closely, I may have ruined her novels for myself for a while. It’s fine, though. Strains of escapism multiply, mutate, and merge in response to waxing and waning states of despair. Now I don’t wear kitchen gloves at night; I sleep in the bed; soon I’ll find out Mantel’s version of what happens after the queen’s head is severed and Cromwell walks away.

Johanna Fateman is a writer, art critic, and owner of the Seagull Salon in New York. She writes regularly for the New Yorker and 4Columns and is a contributing editor for Artforum. She is currently at work on a novel.