I loooooove Philippa Gregory novels! Let’s just get this out of the way: they’re not 100% historically accurate (because they’re historical FICTION, people; big difference between that and nonfiction) but they always suck you in and make you feel like you’re in the middle of the action. This one is called The Last Tudor, I think for two reasons: Gregory has finally run through every Tudor who ever existed. She therefore claims this will be her last Tudor novel. One of the working titles of this novel, announced years ago, was The Grey Girls, and that title would have been accurately descriptive.
THE PLOT: The book is presented in three parts, following each of the Grey sisters— granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who was Queen of France and then scandalously secretly married to Henry’s friend Charles Brandon.
First, we get the story of Jane Grey, the most famous of the sisters, who ruled as queen for nine days after Edward VI’s death. Jane was the legitimate Protestant heir after Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth had been deemed illegitimate. Poor Jane is the victim of her family’s machinations as well as those of other members of the nobility. Jane is married off to Guildford Dudley in an effort to bind the two families together. Jane wants only to continue her religious studies and be left alone, but she’s forced to become queen, and then abandoned to a terrible fate once the country rises up for Catholic Mary Tudor.
The second and longest part of the book follows Jane’s middle sister, Katherine, who has none of Jane’s serious nature. While she’s eager to be named Mary Tudor’s heir to the throne over Elizabeth, all she really wants is love. Mary ends up naming Elizabeth next in line anyway. Mary dies, making Elizabeth queen, and perhaps Katherine is now the volatile Elizabeth’s heir. But vain, jealous Elizabeth doesn’t want any courtiers paying more attention to the next-in-line than they do to her. She also craves all male attention, not allowing her ladies-in-waiting to marry because it would mean a man chose someone over her. In her never-ending manipulative game-playing, Elizabeth refuses to make Katherine her heir. She’s focused on romancing Robert Dudley but refusing to marry and bear her own children, which would diminish Katherine’s claim to the throne. Katherine finally decides to marry her true love in secret and worry about punishment later. But circumstances conspire against her, and she ends up paying a steep price for defying Elizabeth.
The last part focuses on Mary Grey, the youngest of the sisters and a person of small stature (she was referred to as a dwarf in Elizabethan times). No one pays much attention to Mary; everyone assumes she won’t marry and provide a possible Tudor heir to the throne. Gambling on her unimportance, Mary secretly marries her true love as well. Unfortunately, her love story is no happier than her sister Katherine’s.
MY TWO CENTS: Strangely enough, I have never been as much of a fan of Elizabethan fiction as I am of stories of Henry VIII’s court. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because so much of the action relies on Elizabeth’s mercurial temperament. You might admire Elizabeth’s ability to keep everyone dancing on the edge of a knife—never actually making decisions; always keeping people guessing or changing her mind. That ability may have helped make her a great queen, but it does make for tiresome reading after a bit. Her paranoia, her jealousy of any man’s admiration of any other woman over her, is in complete opposition to her extreme intelligence and cunning. (Or was the paranoia just a manifestation of the cunning?)
To an extent, that colored my reading experience of this novel, but that is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. There is always a danger when reading historical fiction that you’re not going to stay engaged when you know what’s coming. That’s especially true when you know the outcome isn’t going to be a happy one. But that did not happen with this book. I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew it wasn’t going anywhere satisfying to the characters.
I have to admit, I found Jane as written a tiresome character. There was absolutely no fun to her at all, just extreme religious piety and a cold disregard for her sisters. So frankly, I was glad to get her story out of the way immediately, even though her shadow lingers over her sisters for the rest of the story. Somehow, I still managed to care what happened to her, and did feel bad when she realized, at the last minute, that she really didn’t want to die. In those last moments, she was finally more like a teenage girl than a robot.
I enjoyed Katherine’s story much more, inasmuch as anyone can enjoy the story of someone who lives most of her adult life locked away from her husband and children and then dies at age 27. Although Jane’s perspective of Katherine was of a silly girl, Katherine seems much more accessible to the reader. Yes, she can be silly, but she also shows many more human emotions than Jane. She loves her pets. She falls deeply in love and risks everything for it. In her naivete, she just honestly didn’t think Elizabeth would punish her for very long, much less forever. Katherine has absolutely no allies or parental figures after her mother dies, so you sympathize when she doesn’t even know for sure if she’s pregnant because no one has told her how to tell. A great part of the book is Katherine not giving up hope that Elizabeth will release her from captivity. Feeling that hope from Katherine’s point of view carries the reader along, even when her hopes are dashed time after time. It’s when Katherine finally realizes that she will never, ever be free that the story switches to Mary’s perspective.
I like Mary, the most practical of the Greys, except for one thing: having witnessed what happened to her sister, mostly because of Elizabeth’s jealousy, did she honestly think she would get away with a secret marriage herself? Did she really believe she wasn’t risking her freedom? But maybe that was the point. Maybe having lost her father and one sister to the executioner, and another sister to prison, she was willing to risk everything for even a short period of love.
This book overlaps somewhat with some of Gregory’s other novels: The Queen’s Fool, The Virgin’s Lover and The Other Queen. There was quite a bit about Robert Dudley and Mary Queen of Scots in this book.
AUDIO NOTE: If you enjoy audiobooks, I highly recommend listening to Gregory’s Plantagenet and Tudor novels in audio format. Bianca Amato has been the reader on many of Gregory’s books, and I enjoy her performances greatly. I’ve had this on pre-order on Audible for months and will enjoy listening to it even after reading it.
COVER NOTES: This cover is pretty bland; just some golden Tudor roses over a silhouette of the Tower of London. Probably better than trying to show all three protagonists. Plus, the typical historical fiction “headless” woman has already been done on Alison Weir’s novel of Katherine Grey, A Dangerous Inheritance.
BOTTOM LINE: Not my favorite Gregory book, but still a very good read. If you’re a fan of Gregory’s, you’ll gobble this up. If you’re not already a fan, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one.
TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.
ON SALE DATE: Available in hardcover, eformats, and audio on August 8, 2017.
NEXT UP FROM THIS AUTHOR: I think we’re finally, FINALLY, getting the fourth and final book in the “Order of Darkness” series! Just this week, the title Dark Tracks has shown up on Amazon, with a release date of March 6, 2018. I don’t know what Gregory has planned after that now that she’s finished writing about the Tudors, but I’ll be watching to find out.
Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.