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What I Didn't Learn From Reading Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners
Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners, by Alison Plowden, is an interesting book that didn’t say half of what it might have. The book is written just slightly above the general best-selling non-fiction level, but mostly because of the topic and the way it is handled. The language used in the book is simple and easy to understand, but that only makes sense as the book is not about a topic that has too much jargon that might confuse outsiders. While the writing itself is very fluid and flows well, some parts read like a laundry list of people and places with not enough details to sustain interest, but enough to raise questions. For instance, the book begins with the Tudors taking power. I suspect there is a very interesting bit of history missing, as Plowden just tells the reader that Henry the VI gave the wardship and marriage of Margaret Beaufort to his half-brothers (the Tudors). We have no background information on this, so we don’t understand why he did it, or what he had thought to accomplish. In fact, we don’t even know if there were problems before this. All we’re told is that she gets married, her husband dies, she has her child (Henry Tudor), then the Yorkists take over and take him away. Through a long list of people, places, and barely mentioned events, we learn of her son’s rise to power. While the focus of the book did claim to be on the women, it would have been nice to have some more information about her so that we could understand more of her choices, and lack of choices. As well, Henry Tudor’s life would have been something that could have and should have been given a bit more attention. Since he is the beginning of the ruling Tudor line, I would have liked to know a little more about him, regardless of the fact that he is male. To understand what we have, we have to study the past, and that is not done in this instance.
The glossing over of details is the greatest failing of this book. In looking to see how others reacted to it, I came across reviews at BOOK.NU (www.book.nu, 2003). There were only three reviews posted, and each of them mentioned, at least once, how the book lacked details and depth. One person shared another sentiment of mine, voicing that they got people confused with each other; something I found easy to do because the number of people covered so quickly and with so little mention of their personal minutiae.
I have to hope that the author assumes that the readers already have an understanding of the history of England, otherwise what has been left out is unbelievable. Queen Mary marrying Prince Philip of Spain is, although an important part of the book and history, not very well explained. His reasons are mentioned (briefly), as are hers, but there is no great picture presented to let us understand the foreign politics going on at the time. Plowden does mention that there is a war going on, but no history of the war is discussed, leaving out a somewhat critical part of the equation necessary for understanding why the public was opposed to Mary’s marriage to Philip. As well, the religious issues that were occurring, which were of major importance within England, are skimmed over, missing the details of exactly how horrible a time it was for common women to be outwardly Catholic – including the 300 people (60 of them women) that Queen Mary was responsible for burning alive.
The title, Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners, is extremely misleading. There are very few pages and very little information on “commoners.” Easily more than ninety percent of the book is devoted to queens, and even then it does not go over their lives in great detail. After reading this book, I became interested in some of the missing details, and found a great source online that is maintained by Kelly Crispen which discusses the lives of women in Tudor England. Her small web site seemed to contain more facts about common women than Plowden’s book did!
It has to be said that most of Plowden’s information seems to be merely a collection of ideas and concepts held by others that she has put together and presented in what seems to be an unbiased way. Wendy Dunn, who presented a review of Plowden’s book on SuiteUniversity (1998 – 2004), shared some of my complaints about missing information, but I disagreed with several of her views and thought other complaints she brought to light were unfounded. One of her complaints is that Plowden agrees with Robert Cecil and his misogynist views on Queen Elizabeth I. While Plowden does quote Roger Ascham’s comment on Elizabeth, “her mind has no womanly weakeness […] her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up (Plowden, 123),” she does not state that this was true. Plowden only offers it as a way of showing what others said about Elizabeth at the time. As part of this argument, it should be mentioned that Dunn is reviewing the exact same book I read – a book from 1979. Although 1979 doesn’t sound (or even feel) that far away, it is in fact twenty-five years ago, and a time when women were viewed differently than they were today. To apply today’s ideas to it does make Plowden sound a bit more of a chauvinist that she probably is. Viewing almost any work that is older will have similar results.
Another disagreement that I had with Dunn’s review was her complaint that Plowden made a contradictory statement about Henry the VIII. Plowden says that it was hard to see what Henry saw in Anne Boleyn, but then goes on to say that Boleyn was witty, charming, lively, accomplished, and sophisticated. While Dunn sees this as a contradiction, I believe that both those statements may very well be true. Henry was not a country bumpkin – he had met women with these abilities and attributes before. When you also take into account that Anne Boleyn was a shrew on many different accounts – selfish, petty, egomaniacal, etc, than you can see where the confusion lies. When you look at Henry’s other wives, it seems clear that he preferred his women quiet and willing. So I agree with Plowden’s assessment that it would be difficult to see what was so attractive about her, as she was so different from his normal type.
While I have no problem defending Plowden against some of Dunn’s attacks, I had one problem with the book that Dunn never mentioned. Plowden seems to believe that Queen Elizabeth I never married because she had seen so many problems, and had seen her mother and another of her father’s wives die because of their marriages. While this may have put Elizabeth off of the idea of marriage, I do not believe that was the entire reason she did not marry. While Plowden may be incapable of understanding it, there are people who are happier without marriage – especially people like Elizabeth who revel in their power. For her to marry would be for her to dilute her power, something that everyone seemed to think she would avoid at all costs. Even if she would have enjoyed the marriage and the things it brought, I cannot think that she would have been happy if she had lost her centralized power.
One thing that can be said about Plowden is that she provides great resources. She spends several pages at the end of the book telling the readers what other books are out there. In fact, one of the books she lists, Lady Jane Grey by Hester Chapman, sounds very interesting to me as I found Lady Grey to be one of the people that Plowden seemed to want to talk about, yet didn’t spend as much time on her as I thought she should. The family tree at the back was also helpful.
Plowden appears to have enthusiasm for her subject. She seems to be very well versed and well-learned, but this is almost a handicap as it may be because of this knowledge and enthusiasm that she omits information and other details that the readers don’t know. One reason for this is given in the review by Wendy Dunn. She points out that Plowden is a Historical writer, not a Historian. While that might not seem to be a big difference, it makes enough of a difference in writing. Plowden’s interest lies in the writing, not the research. She does quite a good job with the writing – she is easy to understand, she presents a lot of information clearly, and she obviously has knowledge of her topic, but she fails when it comes to truly putting it into an historical perspective.
Plowden never gives a reason within the book as to why she wrote it, but from the way it is written and the materials it contains, it seems that it was meant to be either a stepping-stone for those who wanted to test the waters before reading truly in-depth books, or as one critic suggested, it is perfect for high school students. The book is, in fact, very good for those looking to become interested in the time period.