By Danièle Cybulskie
Three Sisters, Three Queens is the latest Tudor novel by the hugely successful Philippa Gregory. Following the story of Henry VIII’s elder sister, Margaret, the book pulls together the lives of Margaret, her younger sister Mary, and Katherine of Aragon, sisters and queens of different nations (Scotland, France, and England, respectively). As with several of Gregory’s other novels, this allows her to look at Henry VIII’s life and age from a different vantage point, as well as exploring an interesting historical figure in her own right.
The story begins with Margaret as a child in the palace of her father, Henry VII, surrounded by her hugely important family, including her formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, and her siblings, Arthur, Henry, and the ever-so-beautiful Mary. Margaret meets Katherine of Aragon, brought from Spain to marry Arthur, and begins her love/hate relationship with the older girl who is destined to be both her sister-in-law and her rival for queenly status. Margaret is soon married to the king of Scotland (James IV), and the book follows her story as queen to a country as beautiful as it is difficult to rule, all the while checking in with the other two titular queens as their own stories unfold.
As a Tudor when the Tudors were still relative newcomers, and a queen of Scotland at a time when rulers were doing their best to unite it, Margaret is a great choice for a protagonist. However, Gregory’s Margaret is intensely superficial at times (if not most of the time) to the point at which I was sometimes ignoring her in favour of picturing her surroundings. Gregory has written her this way deliberately, to play up the rivalry of these three sister-queens: Margaret is constantly concerned with which of them has higher status – especially in terms of clothing, jewels and male children – and the reader is pulled along in this thought process. Other (male) characters comment on this flaw at several points, highlighting the fact that Margaret is at times the very worst example of womanhood that confirms their Early Modern stereotypes entirely. Although Margaret’s mettle is tested many times, she can never quite throw off the selfishness of her youth, and is still obsessed with comparisons even in the final pages.
On the plus side, this is a very sympathetic portrait of a country I love. It’s a nice change to see sixteenth-century Scotland shown not as barbaric, but politically complicated, not to mention gorgeous. James IV is a lovely character who is cultured and sophisticated, wise and troubled; a beautiful foil to the Henry VIII who casts a malevolent shadow over the later parts of the book. Katherine, Mary, and Margaret Beaufort are interesting and three-dimensional despite the size of their supporting roles.
I think that what is both the strength and the weakness of this book is its central rivalry between the sister-queens. With it, the reader can see Margaret’s status in the world as it fluctuates, and the idea of telling her story without her famous sister and sister-in-law seems nearly impossible. However, without the centrality of this rivalry, there would have been much more space to explore Margaret’s role not as a Tudor, but as a queen in her own right: what did she think of the Scots’ politics? How did Scotland change under her rule? How did she deal with the drama and uncertainty (and there is loads of it) as a strategist? I would have loved to hear more about the Scottish court and its factions. Because of the emphasis on Margaret’s Tudor ties and her envy, I found it hard to sympathize with her as I have with other of Gregory’s heroines. It’s possible that the real Margaret was ruled by envy and blown about by the whims of men more than steered by her own volition, but considering that this is fiction, I would have preferred a more likeable central character.
Fans of Gregory’s other Tudor books (as I am) will be pleased by a similar storytelling style, as well as the appearance of Henry VIII and his court as the inevitable drama plays out. Newcomers to Gregory may wish to start with one of her books that features a much more sympathetic central character, like Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl. Anyone who reads Three Sisters, Three Queens, though, will certainly want to know more about Margaret Tudor and the incredible ups and downs of her life.