Simon & Schuster | 2017 (8 August) | 519p | Review copy | Buy the book
Perhaps if Lady Jane Grey had denied her Protestant faith, her Catholic cousin, Queen Mary Tudor, might not have had Jane beheaded for stealing the Tudor crown for those nine infamous days in July 1553. But Jane steadfastly refused and so this 17-year-old girl went to the block, becoming one of the most well-known and pitied figures in English history. But Jane wasn’t the only member of the Grey family to fall foul of their more powerful cousins. Her younger sisters Katherine and Mary were Elizabeth I’s closest heirs, a constant reminder of how fragile her grip on the throne was, and, just like Jane, the target of men with ambition. But in the end their crime was very different from Jane’s. Both Katherine and Mary were prepared to risk everything for love.
Philippa Gregory’s latest novel about Tudor women is, she tells us, most likely her last and this, I think, explains much of its title. Beginning in the 1550s, it covers the reigns of Henry VIII’s three children but its early focus is on the events that forced Lady Jane Grey to the forefront of history. The novel is divided into three (unequal in length) parts, covering each of the three sisters’ stories in turn, with the larger middle part telling the tragic tale of Katherine Grey. Each section is told in the present tense by each sister in turn – Jane, Katherine and Mary – and the voice of Jane sets a striking opening note for The Last Tudor.
Jane’s story is well-known to history for a good reason – it’s as fascinating as it’s upsetting, but Philippa Gregory does a fine job of showing that there was more to her than the usual image of an innocent lamb led to the slaughter. This Jane is defiant and uncompromising, difficult to love and isolated. Her religion is more important than family. But we’re not allowed to forget that she is effectively a child and she has no control over her own destiny. The only thing she has power over is her faith and she will not give it up. But the Jane portrayed here might never have thought that Mary would actually kill her. Jane isn’t easy to like but she’s extremely easy to feel sorry for. The author demonstrates well that Jane’s death was such an enormous waste. This might be a familiar tale but it’s a powerful one and it doesn’t lose anything in the re-telling.
Jane’s two sisters Katherine and Mary are less well-known but their stories – Katherine’s in particular – are just as tragic. Mary is a fascinating character, not least because she would have stood out in court for being a ‘little person’ but this characteristic and useful ability to appear unseen didn’t always keep her safe from Elizabeth I. I really enjoyed Mary’s narrative during the novel’s final third. She presents an unusual perspective on the Tudor court and her resilience is extraordinary.
The larger part of the novel concerns the middle sister Katherine Grey and what a pitiful story it is. Perhaps it’s because this is the longest section but I soon tired of Katherine’s voice. Her naivety in embarking on a course of action that was bound to end in trouble made me less sympathetic than I should have been. I must admit that I just wanted it to end.
The figure that overshadows the whole novel is Elizabeth I and what a tyrant she is. Philippa Gregory always makes plain her feelings about historical figures and we can be in no doubt about her view of Elizabeth. This is all well and good (this is fiction after all) but I did have some trouble with the novel’s judgement of Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour. The novel tells a gripping story but its characterisation is arguably quite flat or black and white with little freedom for development and few surprises.
Philippa Gregory is a prolific author and so it’s not surprising that I get on with some novels better than others. Some I absolutely adore, such as The Taming of the Queen, but others, including The Last Tudor, less so. Nevertheless, the history that fuels The Last Queen is absolutely fascinating and deserves a re-telling. What will stay in my mind most of all, though, is the opening voice of Lady Jane Grey as she heads resolutely towards her fate.