I first read half of this book, and put it down. Instead of having pauses in the writing when there is a change in location or time, it melts into the paragraph. This may be an issue with my edition, and it became very distracting. I would have to stop and go back and see if the new sentence was part of the last scene or the beginning of a new scene, and it took me a while to finish reading. I put it down once Henry won the Battle of Bosworth, but after about a week I was too curious to see where it was going, so I picked it back up again.
Gellis is a very good writer. Her descriptions are wonderful, and my main complaint is just the bleeding of scenes into each other. I love that she makes Henry VII more relatable, and delves into his psyche so we understand him as a person, not as an abstract and distant king. Henry is utterly human, a man who fears for his life and can’t eat or sleep when he or his family are in danger. In the beginning he trusts no one other than his uncle Jasper, but we understand why. Henry calculates everything he does, but even when he is cold to others he is warm to the reader.
Elizabeth of York is less developed and rarely the narrator’s focus, but she is a sweet woman who loves and understands her husband. She is tortured by her relationship with her mother, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth of York has to fight against her mother’s control but she can’t help but become very stuck in the middle of the politics. She becomes literally sick with worry when she hears of her mother’s plotting against Henry. Elizabeth is a natural diplomat and she has a wonderful sense of humor.
Gellis’ depiction of Margaret Beaufort is unique, and a breath of fresh air compared with the negative, crazy woman that is currently in the public’s imagination. Gellis portrays her as a soft, kind and sweet woman, who is not a religious zealot. She is the one that Elizabeth of York leans on and depends on, her friend whom she trusts implicitly. Because Elizabeth Woodville is shown as a conniving woman who cares about her own personal advancement, the vacuum in the two Elizabeth’s mother-daughter relationship is filled by Margaret. Margaret is one of the only people who are willing to stand up to Henry, and she refuses to do his bidding when he commands her to do something cruel or undiplomatic. She forces Henry to stop and think for the sake of the country and his marriage. She keeps him balanced.
Margaret’s marriage to Sir Thomas Stanley, who becomes the Earl of Derby, is vastly different to what we have seen in other fictional accounts. He is still a calculating man but he loves Margaret completely, is crazy about her, and begs for her to marry him. When he promises his support to Henry at Bosworth he is practically hysterical, declaring his love for Margaret and his desire to please her against the danger of his son being in Richard’s hands.
Nearly half of the book is spent on Henry’s time in exile, from 1471 to 1485. I am not sure if Gellis had access to documents about this period of his life, as this depiction is one of the only ways the book deviates from the history. The history shows that while Henry was a prisoner of Duke Francis of Brittany, he was not in the company of the Duke. At first, Henry and Jasper were housed together under the care of Admiral Jean de Quelenhec, and were moved from one of his houses to another of his houses. In 1474 the pair were suddenly separated, Henry’s English servants and guards were replaced with Bretons, and he was moved into the care of the Marshall of Brittany, Jean de Rieux. In 1476 they were reunited in Vannes. At this point Henry joins up with Francis’ court, but he had not been constantly in the company of the Duke, as he is in the plot of this book. They would have been on good terms, but Henry was not his companion; he was a prisoner and for most of his time in Brittany was treated as one.
The other major turn from the historical record is when Elizabeth becomes pregnant with, and then gives birth to, Prince Arthur. When Henry shows some hesitation about becoming sexual, fearing that it might hurt the baby or cause a miscarriage, Elizabeth talks him through it, saying that her mother was able to have sex when she was pregnant and no harm came of it. This is not the attitude of the times. Neither is her labor and birthing experience, where Henry is the only one by her side and promises not to leave her. As queen she had midwives, her mother and mother-in-law to help her. Henry had been on a progress and may not have even been at Winchester when Arthur was born, let alone allowed in the birthing chamber! It’s a modern spin which the reader can identify with, a worried daddy helping the mommy through her contractions, but it’s not historical.
If there is another printing of this book, I would suggest purchasing it to see if the timing issue is specific to my edition. I recommend this book for anyone who thinks that Henry VII has been getting a bum deal lately, and who would want to see Margaret Beaufort as someone other than an antagonist. If you are a fan of the king, then you will enjoy this book. Gellis sticks with most of the major historical events, and is able to add a touch of humanity to them. You will never look at Henry VII as a cold, greedy miser again.
Cover of The Dragon and the Rose by Roberta Gellis. Playboy Press, copyright 1977.