Romantic Elements and Transcending Genre in THE QUEEN'S FOOL by Philippa Gregory
I wrote the essay below for the Stonecoast MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at the University of Southern Maine. Please feel free to cite my work with attribution if you like for your own academic or other research. If you find the arguments useful or interesting, please email me at LauraNavarreAuthor [at] yahoo [dot] com. I’d love to hear from you.
During the first half of this semester, my annotations for the Stonecoast MFA program have analyzed key elements in “classic” romance fiction, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and Nora Roberts’s Montana Sky. For reasons discussed in the previous annotations, these novels soundly meet the criteria of romance fiction described by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Although secondary plots and characters enrich these stories, each is—first and foremost—a romance novel. In contrast, my analysis in the following pages explores a historical novel with romantic elements that transcends the genre, The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory. Although the love story in this novel adheres to Regis’s romantic elements and is central to the plot, The Queen’s Fool transcends the romance genre by enmeshing the heroine’s journey inextricably with the central political and religious conflicts of her time, and using the heroine as both a lens and a vehicle to explore these broader issues. In so doing, the author raises the stakes to encompass a life-and-death struggle for Tudor England and, by inference, for any society troubled by religious tension. Yet Gregory also gives this conflict a deeply personal dimension which is expressed through the heroine’s journey.
Clues regarding the story’s broad scope and high stakes are embedded in the very first chapter, which sets the stage. The novel opens with an unidentified man’s sexual pursuit of a young woman in a garden, conveyed through a rather impersonal omniscient point of view (POV). By p. 3, we learn that the young woman is fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth Tudor, and that the pursuer is her stepfather Tom Seymour, who is married to Henry VIII’s widow, Queen Katherine Parr. Immediately the stakes soar, because we see the political implications for England if this seduction is successful. By p. 4, the novel’s heroine is introduced—a young Spanish émigré, the Jew and bookseller Hannah Green, who witnesses the flirtation between Elizabeth and Seymour, and sees a prophetic vision of Seymour at the scaffold. Now the stakes for this seduction have become a matter of life and death. By opening with this omniscient glimpse of high political and personal stakes, Gregory has already informed the reader that the novel’s broad scope will transcend the boundaries of romance. Yet Gregory has also met the first of Regis’s requirements for a romance, by using the adulterous and dangerous flirtation between Elizabeth and Seymour to portray a microcosm of society out-of-balance.
Several pages pass before we settle into first-person POV of the heroine, Hannah Green. She becomes the lens through which we view the story and the vehicle through which the action occurs. In the very first pages of Hannah’s POV, we find clues to the personal, life-and-death stakes for our heroine. We learn that the heroine mourns her mother’s execution and is “hiding from grief as well as the Inquisition….[W]e were convinced Protestants now. We could not have been better Protestants if our lives had depended on it. Of course, our lives did depend on it.” (p. 6-9) Moreover, the author has already established a link between the heroine’s personal stakes and the broad political and religious stakes that will hinge on the story’s resolution.
In addition to the heavy lifting these first pages have already achieved, the author manages to introduce the novel’s false hero, Lord Robert Dudley. Hannah’s fascination with Dudley is immediately apparent, which gives the impression that Dudley may be the story’s romantic hero. “I snapped my eyes open and leaped to attention. Before me, casting a long shadow, was a young man….He was the most breathtakingly handsome man I had ever seen….At the moment his dark eyes flicked to mine, I felt myself freeze, as if all the clocks in London had suddenly stopped still and their pendulums were caught silent.” (p. 10-11) This tension-fraught meeting between the heroine and the apparent hero is the second of Regis’s required elements of romance.
In the bantering dialogue between Dudley and Hannah that follows, a mutual attraction is apparent, thereby providing the third of Regis’s required romantic elements. By p. 25, Dudley has used Hannah’s attraction to him for his own purposes, by “begging her for a fool” to the king so that the unwilling heroine may be planted at court as a spy. Since it still appears that Dudley may be the story’s romantic hero, his Machiavellian use of Hannah (which will continue throughout the novel) may be viewed as a primary complication or “barrier” that impedes the romance. Another significant complication is Dudley’s marriage to Amy, although his wife is “off-screen” for much of the story. The presence of these impediments to romance is the fourth of Regis’s required romantic elements.
Despite his shortcomings, Dudley is not convincingly discredited as the romantic hero until quite late in the novel, during the siege of Calais in which both Hannah and Dudley are caught up. When the French invade the city, civilians are dying in the streets around them, and Hannah’s life is in obvious jeopardy, Dudley’s effort to protect her is modest at best. “He…twisted a ring from his finger, threw it at me, careless if I caught it or not. ‘Take this to the Windflight,’ he said. ‘My ship. I will see you aboard if we need to sail. Go now.’” (p. 403) Then he thunders off on his own mission, leaving Hannah vulnerable and entirely reliant on her own resources to survive. By this point, it is apparent to the reader that Dudley is not worthy of being the romantic hero and will not grow into a worthy hero. Thus, a happily-ever-after romance between Hannah and Dudley is decidedly not in the cards. Where, then, is the story going?
Much of the novel focuses on the heroine’s efforts to survive and thrive amid conflicting intrigues, during which Gregory deviates entirely from the customary romance plot. Before the crisis at Calais, Hannah and the false hero Dudley spend substantial periods of time apart and, while the romance between them is latent, the heroine is again used as a lens and vehicle for the novel’s broader political and religious conflicts. It is important to note that Hannah does not merely observe and comment upon these national conflicts—to the contrary. Due to her ethnic and religious origins, Hannah is acutely involved and endangered by the conflict that arises between Catholic Queen Mary Tudor and her Protestant sister Princess Elizabeth. We know Hannah’s mother was burned at the stake for heresy in the Spanish Inquisition. Understandably, Hannah evinces symptoms of what a modern reader recognizes as post-traumatic stress disorder, and Hannah has an obsessive fear of meeting the same fate. When Mary decides to wed the Spanish Prince Philip (an ardent Catholic), Hannah’s father says, “I cannot stay [in England] if it is to become another Spain….Every Sunday, every saint’s day, they burned heretics, sometimes hundreds at a time. And those of us who had practiced Christianity for years were put on trial alongside those who had hardly pretended to it. And no one could prove their innocence!” (p. 158)
The threat to Hannah becomes even more acute when she is arrested under suspicion of heresy. Although she is quickly released due to an influential friend’s intervention, her arrest serves to raise her personal stakes still higher. We see that torture and death by burning are not merely a hypothetical possibility, but a real danger for her. Her harrowing arrest and imprisonment also serve as an effective personal illustration of the national agony in England, as Catholics and Protestants struggle for dominance. Thus, the author uses Hannah as a vehicle to reflect both the personal and global stakes of the conflict. Because of the scope and consequences of these conflicts, The Queen’s Fool stretches well beyond the boundaries of the customary romance novel.
To complete our analysis of the story’s romantic elements, we must discuss briefly the secondary hero, the young Jewish doctor Daniel Carpenter, who eventually emerges as the true hero. Although Hannah is betrothed to Daniel early in the story, it is not a romantic arrangement, and she does not initially love him, since her attention is entirely fixed on Dudley. The first real indication of Daniel’s role as the true hero comes when he kisses Hannah for the first time and she notes “for some odd reason, the feeling of absolute safety that he gave me….I wanted to…let him hold me against him and know that I was safe—if only I would let him love me, if only I would let myself love him.” (p. 162) The attraction between these two, both physical and emotional, is now apparent. Yet Hannah and Daniel are often separated for lengthy periods, and Dudley (a primary impediment to the Hannah-Daniel romance) has not yet proven his falseness.
Another impediment to the Hannah-Daniel romance occurs when Hannah discovers Daniel’s infidelity during the period of their separation. Hannah is “filled with resentment that love should have brought me so low that I was whimpering at betrayal….I did not want to be a girl in love any more….I strode away [from Daniel] as if I would walk home…to England, all the way to Robert Dudley, and tell him that I would be his mistress this very night if he desired it….I had tried an honorable love and it had been nothing but lies and dishonesty: a hard road and paid with a false coin at the end.” (p. 369-71) When Hannah leaves Daniel, her disillusionment over Daniel’s past betrayal becomes a primary complication and impediment to their happily-ever-after.
For much of the novel, the author uses Daniel and Dudley to externalize Hannah’s inner conflict: her desire as a lifelong refugee to remain in England and have a stable life (represented by Dudley who is rooted to England and the court, and who demands that Hannah remain in danger to assist him), set against Hannah’s need for safety and freedom (represented by Daniel, whose top priority is always to protect Hannah, who learns to allow her substantial personal freedom, and who encourages her to embrace her Jewish heritage.) It is only after we see Dudley’s benign indifference in Calais when Hannah’s life is jeopardized, and after Hannah is given the subsequent opportunity to become Dudley’s lover and rejects him, that she recognizes the true worth of Daniel.
In similar fashion, the author uses Hannah’s conflicting loyalties to Mary and Elizabeth Tudor as a device to personalize the English nation’s divided loyalties. Hannah is drawn to Mary for her kindness and steadiness (though these qualities deteriorate as Mary slips toward fanaticism after losing and being abandoned by her husband.) At the same time, the adolescent and sexually-awkward Hannah is drawn to Elizabeth’s feminine confidence and charisma. Moreover, both royal sisters show a sincere affection toward Hannah. These divided loyalties torment Hannah until the end, when she finds the maturity to forgive Daniel for his past infidelity (which he sincerely repents) and the wisdom to recognize the true and lasting love between them. This personal growth gives Hannah the perspective to make her peace with both Mary and Elizabeth as aspects of herself. She tells Daniel, “I have seen a woman break her heart for love: my Queen Mary. I have seen another break her soul to avoid it: my Princess Elizabeth. I don’t want to be Mary or Elizabeth. I want to be me: Hannah Carpenter.” (p. 500)
At its heart, The Queen’s Fool is the story of a young woman’s growth from rebellion to maturity, which is reflected in her evolution away from the false hero Dudley to the true hero Daniel. As a key indicator of Hannah’s growth and a reflection of the larger conflicts, the love triangle between Hannah, Dudley, and Daniel is a primary plot thread. However, The Queen’s Fool is also the story of a nation at war with itself, the battle between two religions and the related tension between fanaticism and tolerance. Among her other skills as a historian and storyteller, Philippa Gregory’s genius lies in her ability to relate—with equal immediacy and relevance—the parallel stories of a nation consumed by political and religious conflict (spearheaded by the warring Tudors), and the suffering this conflict imposes on the individuals caught up in it (represented by Hannah Green.) As such, the historical novel The Queen’s Fool transcends the intimate scope of the romance genre, and tells us a story of love, discovery, and acceptance that impacts the future of a nation. The agonizing consequences of England’s religious conflict bear relevance for any modern nation struggling to chart a course between religious extremism and tolerance.