One problem that I have with Philippa Gregory’s work is the running theme of unsympathetic mothers. Out of her ‘Tudors’ and Cousins’s Wars series (ten books at the moment, soon to be eleven – or already eleven if you count ‘The Wise Woman’) I count perhaps
two sympathetic and positive maternal figures in the early lives of the various heroines: one being Jacquetta of Luxembourg (Elizabeth Woodville’s mother) in ‘The White Queen’, and the other being Isabella of Castile (Catherine of Aragon’s mother) in ‘The Constant Princess’ who, while not exactly the most approachable of women, does evidently and passionately care for her children.
And the rest?
When they’re present, they’re mostly cut from the same cloth; noblewomen who regard their daughters as bargaining chips and broodmares who must do their duty and nothing but their duty, who send them coldly into harsh marriages and turn their backs when the protagonists cry for help, who tell their daughters to shut up and get on with bearing sons, even if it kills them. That’s what women are for, after all!
What if there’s evidence that mother and daughter actually shared something even vaguely resembling affection?
What of it?
Far from being her mother’s favorite as she almost certainly was in reality, Anne of Cleves is whipped by Maria of Jülich-Berg in ‘The Boleyn Inheritance’, as a precaution against lewd behavior. Cecily Neville, who reportedly had a very good relationship with her daughter-in-law Anne Neville, is depicted as being contemptuous and patronizing towards the sixteen year old Anne. What Margaret Beauchamp felt towards her daughter Margaret Beaufort (‘The Red Queen’) is less clear, but Elizabeth Howard, while growing to dislike Mary Boleyn, is supposed to have been very close to her younger daughter Anne (‘The Other Boleyn Girl’) – yet both ladies wouldn’t mind their daughters dying in childbirth so long as male children are secured, once Gregory’s done with them. A valid opinion for its time, but we never see any emotional turmoil, any anguish at the thought, or indeed any sympathy for their daughters whatsoever.
Again, there’s a strong ‘shut up and get on with it’ vibe that gets increasingly grating, despite the time period these works take place in. By the time we reach the latest cold and disapproving mother in ‘The King Maker’s Daughter’, Anne de Beauchamp – a woman who actually did have very strained relations with her daughters, I’ll give Gregory that – it’s retreading the same old theme of a neglectful noble mother, see how terrible the system was? Naturally, this method of parenting is defied by their daughters, who shower evident love and affection upon their children, whether natural or adopted, showing what good protagonists and, by our modern standards, progressive human beings they are.
Then, oh then! there are the wicked mothers-in-law, and don’t think the male characters escape their mothers’ scorn either; it’s as if any female over the age of forty is doomed to be a bitter old harridan.
(Admittedly Margaret Beaufort was already well on her way there even in her teens, but I digress. Judging by what we saw of her behavior towards her son’s betrothed in ‘The Red Queen’, Elizabeth of York is not going to have a fun time in ‘The White Princess‘ by any means.)
I understand that life was harsher back then, that noble marriages were made for advancement and wealth and very rarely for love or the happiness of the pair involved. We all understand that. The Late Middle Ages was not exactly a barrel of laughs to live through, even if you were part of the nobility. But is it really necessary to hammer this home by giving every protagonist an antagonist in the shape of a mother – indeed, of a whole family, and on more than one occasion a mother-in-law – who’d gladly sacrifice them on the alter of advancement?
Probably it is. After all, we need to understand just how very ambitious and ruthless everyone is.