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13.04.14, Finn, The Last Plantagenet Consorts

13.04.14, Finn, The Last Plantagenet Consorts

Thanks in part to the discovery, announced in February 2013, of the long-lost bones of the English king Richard III (r. 1483-85) in a Leicester parking lot, we are in the midst of a popular and scholarly flurry of renewed interest in the demise of the Plantagenet dynasty. In Kavita Mudan Finn's The Last Plantagenet Consorts: Gender, Genre, and Historiography, 1440-1627, the women of Richard's era-- and more importantly the narratives constructed about them--take center stage. Mudan Finn has assembled and analyzed a considerable array of diverse source materials that effectively challenge the none- too-secure divide between "historical" and "literary." With them she examines evolving attitudes towards and anxieties about English queens and queen-mothers Margaret of Anjou, Cecily Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, and Elizabeth of York. In seamlessly weaving her own analysis together with insights of previous scholars, she also reveals how the very act of history-writing in a variety of genres evolves in the face of humanism, a centralizing monarchy, the arrival of Protestantism, and the presence of queens regnant Mary I and Elizabeth I.

The author arranges her argument according to different written genres of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the first chapter, Mudan Finn provides an overview of the sources that took up queenship during these women's lives and stresses the influence of romance narratives on other genres, including chronicles and diplomatic accounts. Next she turns to Polydore Vergil and Sir Thomas More's well-known early sixteenth-century histories, both written to some extent in order to satisfy the Tudor ascendancy. The former reflects changes by monarchs that reduced a queen's power of lobby by encasing these queens' actions in the familiar tropes of feminine inconstancy or motherhood; while the latter, according to Mudan Finn, uses female narratives in order to emphasize the tensions inherent in the genre, "the theatricality of rhetoric, and the fictive nature of historical writing itself" (72). Mudan-Finn's next texts, Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York and Holinshed's Chronicles, illustrate the shift--evident and unsurprising during the reign of a female monarch--toward factionalism as an explanation for the previous century's strife. Yet these texts and the didactic Mirror for Magistrates of the same period do not overtly praise powerful females: the latter has no speaking queens, and even Foxe's Actes and Monuments provides female exempla to Elizabeth I as warnings about abuse of power and feminine influence. The tension between factionalism and female rule as causes for crisis found its way into drama as well: Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius updated both the Roman playwright Seneca's format and his affection for women's speech as a manifestation of their power. Having carefully unpacked this dense forest of overlapping texts and genres, Mudan Finn reaches the most renowned account of the Wars of the Roses--Shakespeare's tetralogy--in chapter six. Like these other writers, the Bard was a product of his times, and Mudan Finn suggests that concerns about the fragility of monarchy and questions of succession in the waning years of Elizabeth I's reign informed the presence, absence, and the words placed in the mouths of his female characters. In a final chapter, the author turns to historical poetry and finds again significant evidence of genre bending. She offers brief final remarks (too brief for this reader's preference) at the close of this chapter. In the end, writers from More to Shakespeare and beyond find queens useful tools for examining their craft: "One can observe a shift in ways queens are positioned at points of interrogation--rather than having their own narratives subverted and contained as they were in earlier chronicle sources, poets and dramatists use the queen's voice to question assumptions about the historical record, political rhetoric, and indeed the very process of writing about history" (191-92).

Mudan Finn's work is clearly directed at scholars who are already quite familiar with the tangled vicissitudes of the Wars of the Roses. Those less schooled in the period and its players would surely have benefitted from a genealogical table and/or a brief consideration of her cast of characters in the introduction. Likewise, Mudan Finn makes reference, especially in the early chapters, to artistic depictions of these queens, but provides only minimal description and no illustrations other than that on the cover, to which she fails to refer specifically. It might have been interesting for readers to consider how visual culture drew on the various genres elucidated here, further complicating the picture Mudan Finn presents in this volume.

As Mudan Finn suggests in her concluding remarks, her work, of use to scholars of queenship from all periods and disciplines, is timely for another reason. As the recent death of Margaret Thatcher and the speculation over Hillary Clinton's presidential run occupy the twenty- four-hour news cycles, it is clear, as Mudan Finn indicates, that the practice of seeing and assessing political women through "specific narrative frameworks" (192) such as those age-old typologies outlined in her work (motherhood, hunger for and abuse of power, witch) is alas, far from finished.