Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Queen's Fool - Philippa Gregory

As change of pace I decided to read The Queen’s Fool. I have read Philippa Gregory’s books before, and I’ve always been impressed. The Queen’s Fool was no different; it was very real, poignant, and managed to convey the true depths of human emotion.

The Queen’s Fool (TQF) is a companion to The Other Boleyn Girl (TOBG), which is a well-known best seller that was recently made into a movie. TQF features a lot of the same families that we saw in TOBG, as it is set in England just after the reign of Henry VIII. To very succinctly sum it up, this book follows the succession of first Queen Mary I and then Queen Elizabeth I, as told through the eyes of the court fool, Hannah Green.

While it has the makings of all good historical fiction, (history, intrigue, heartbreak, romance etc.), what I really want to focus on is women’s roles in the mid 1500’s.

Power Dynamic’s in 16th Century Relationships

While I did just give a summary of TQF, you should completely disregard it. This book is really about power dynamics in 16th century relationships. In my humble opinion, the reason this book is able to so successfully portray these dynamics is because it is set at such a turning point in history. Elizabeth I was about to take the throne and become the first queen to truly rule in her own right. The world was battling over religion, and fighting the old conventions (the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is flat, god created everything in seven days). Basically everything was tossed up into the air, and people were beginning to re-write the rules.

Throughout the whole book Hannah fights against the traditional conventions of women. She wears breeches, she is educated and she doesn’t want to marry. There are several men in her life that influence her. There is her father; the supportive role that wants to see her happy but also wants her safe. There is Lord Robert, who seduces her and wants to use her to do his bidding. But, at the same time he introduces her to a new world where power is yours for the taking if you’re willing to sell your morals for it. Finally, there is Daniel, her betrothed, who wants to love her, but on his terms, where he is the man, and she is the woman, and where she will honor and cherish him as her husband and head of the household.

Hannah’s struggle to find her own balance between independence and duty is mirrored in the opposing forces of Mary and Elizabeth. Mary is the traditional side. She longs for love and ends up dying from grief when it is not returned. She abandons who she is and what she wants for the love she needs. On the other hand, there is Elizabeth, who craves nothing but her own power. She uses every relationship to further her own gains. Her independence is all she has, and she twists everyone around her to keep it.

Hannah is suck in the middle of these two women. She loves and admires them both. Lord Robert once said that she is so desperate to love and be loved that she is on all sides at once. In a way I agree with him, she is on all sides at once, but because she does not know her own mind. For most of the book she is trying to figure out who she is, independent of her father, her betrothed, and her lord.

I think that Mary and Elizabeth essentially show two sides of Hannah’s personality. Mary is the honorable, steadfast side and Elizabeth the quick witted and independent side.

Lasting Relevance

The thing that really struck me about this book was the lasting relevance. It was set in the 1500s, but I think there is still a lot to be said about the way Hannah struggles to rectify wanting to be loved and cherished, but still live her own life. I’ve often thought that the ideals of men and women, and changing modern values, are so conflicting that they are basically incompatible.

Take men’s roles for example. Men are supposed to be in control and collected during every situation. They are supposed to not need directions, instinctively know how to build something, and handle times of crisis with assured self-confidence. Yet at the same time, modern vales say they are supposed to always respect their wives/girlfriend’s opinions. They are supposed to be dominate, but always adoring and respectful. When you add the fact that women are excepted to be emotional and easily frightened, this task basically becomes impossible. How can you except a man to be the head of his family but never talk down to those he’s supposed to control? How can you except a woman to take her place in modern society when she is expected to need a man’s support? All of these tasks are totally impossible. Which leads me to my next question. If the old ways don’t work, and the new ways aren’t yet accepted, then what are we supposed to do?

In this moment I totally, and completely, relate with Hannah. And Mary. And Elizabeth. Just as I’m sure the men out there can relate to Hannah’s father, and Daniel, and Lord Robert. I simultaneously want to feel taken care of, coveted and totally independent. This is not possible. I’m sure then many men want to know their families are safe, their masculinity is unquestioned, and their wives/love ones are happy. This is probably more possible, but still very hard.

We all struggle to balance society expectations with our own wants and needs. Enough said. 

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