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Kavita Mudan Finn, The Last Plantagenet Consorts: Gender, Genre and Historiography, 1440-1627 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Kavita Mudan Finn, The Last Plantagenet Consorts: Gender, Genre and Historiography, 1440-1627 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-230-39298-4, 280 pp. £58.00.

Reviewed by Phoebe C. Linton


[1] Kavita Mudan Finn’s greatest strength in The Last Plantagenet Consorts is her skilful weaving together of different scholastic areas. Questions about the interconnection of historiography, literature, and theory coalesce in a rigorous analysis of the varying ways in which both marginal and mainstream female political players were perceived and narrated in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries. Importantly, she challenges ‘the imposition of modern models of female agency upon this body of texts, particularly in representations of queenship’ (p. 2), neither being tempted to attribute too much or too little power to the women she considers.

[2] The Last Plantagenet Consorts addresses in great detail many female figures, including Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York, Margaret of Anjou, Anne Neville, Cecily Neville, Joan of Arc, and Elizabeth I, as well as fictional queens in Le Morte Darthur. Over the course of her argument, Finn also addresses a wide range of genres – chronicle, drama, romance, and ballad – exploring the ways in which ‘embedded’ or ‘emplotted narratives’ manifest themselves variously across the centuries. Establishing a discussion of Boccaccio’s de casibus tradition of tragic women’s tales over time, Finn charts the way these narratives of marginal or empowered women are re-imagined for political purposes that shift subtly or radically depending on the presence of male or female monarchs. With an awareness of both classical and biblical traditions of female characterisation, Finn considers British and continental writers, including Christine de Pizan, George Chastellain, Thomas Basin, Antonio Cornazzano, Jacopo Foresti de Bergamo, Polydore Vergil, Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Malory, Thomas More, Georges Chastellain, John Lydgate, John Hardyng, William Shakespeare, Edward Hall, and several others. The scope and depth of research involved in forming this book is impressive and acquaints the reader with the relevant authors and political players in a detailed manner. Because of this, Finn’s book is accessible to those with either an in-depth or basic knowledge of early modern history.

[3] The first and second chapters of Finn’s text are particularly strong, as they set out the narratives that occur repeatedly in the texts examined in her later chapters. To begin, Finn surveys a collection of medieval historiographies and the function of manuscript culture and ‘cross-pollination’ in presenting queenship. ‘All women’, she argues, ‘even queens, were made to conform to predetermined outlines, whether based on ceremony and ritual, political allegiance, or even audience expectations in some cases’ (p. 17). She considers how different texts respond to these predetermined outlines and to each other. Biblical and romance imagery constituted important elements in this process, since allegory reflected popular expectations about women’s roles in society. The subtlety of Finn’s argument lies in her attention to the difference between these standard tropes and the possibility that authors undermined such literary devices even as they used them. Still, Finn believes such challenges could limit female agency in texts: ‘Although queens [. . .] can display a certain amount of political agency within the confines of a romance narrative, that agency is always compromised, not just by the narrative itself, but also by the discourse that informs that narrative’ (p. 28). By asking these kinds of questions, Finn lays the groundwork for her book in her first chapter by tackling such contradictory narrative forces as those outlined above.

[4] The second chapter attends to the destructive factional forces that motivated the Wars of the Roses and affected the balance of power in depictions of royal marriages. To prevent factions becoming this powerful again, more authority was consolidated in the single figure of the king, which meant the framework for queens to work within autonomously was limited considerably. Literary female figures become increasingly passive and silent at this time, exemplified in the works of Vergil, whose women are rendered ‘objects’ according to Finn (p. 62). For instance, she suggests Vergil utilizes paradigms of hagiography and romance where women may be worshiped or desired, but act little themselves. Finn discusses how religion also plays a role in this process, for if a current king’s right to the throne is divinely ordained, ‘his choice of wife does not matter’ (p. 63). Vergil’s writing only treats more distant historical figures like Margaret of Anjou as autonomous agents, since Margaret’s historical peripherality was less threatening. Elizabeth of York, on the other hand, was a more recent consort and her narrative is subdued by Vergil.

[5] The third chapter treats the transformation of historiography post-Reformation, whilst maintaining an awareness of certain continuities in approaches to women, comparing humanist and clerical writers of the sixteenth century. Despite the fact that during this time there were two queens regnant, some authors, like Richard Grafton, portrayed women’s agency as a force which highlights male weakness and is therefore a threat (p. 82). The fourth chapter notes the shift in emphasis on queens’ power to concerns about morality, which serves to dis-empower women in texts further, since women who did not conform to moral paradigms were marginalized. It is also at this point in history that tensions about sorcery arise in political narratives. In the fifth chapter Finn examines the break in this tradition as found in different dramatic texts, considering the role of performance in negotiating questions about female agency. Shakespeare’s plays, as explored in the sixth section, similarly contain simultaneously opposite feelings about, on the one hand, the necessity of queens, and on the other, the threat they pose to the stability of male power.

[6] In her final conversation about tragic and complaint poetry, Finn looks forward to the end of the sixteenth century and on to the seventeenth, suggesting the inherent power of female voice represented by texts that ostensibly attempt to contain women who are ‘the tellers of their own stories, however brief’ (p. 181). This is one of the most important questions she considers, emphasising quality over quantity in women’s narratives. As a closing reflection, Finn observes that even now women in the political arena are often viewed through a lens that may frame female ambition and power in negative terms. Thus fifteenth- and sixteenth-century forms of literature, so removed from our own in time, nevertheless provide fruitful explorations. Finn theorizes women’s voices and narrative subtexts in the manner of critics, such as Laura D. Barefield and Elizabeth Scala, who study textual structure as a means of re-evaluating famous historical figures.

[7] Some critics might view this book’s focus on authorial ambivalence and multivalent narrative tensions as lacking a clear-cut single perspective on the many texts Finn addresses. However, I argue this is her primary strength. Currently, in medieval criticism, marginality and ambiguity are predominant interests, particularly within the field of gender studies and examinations of women’s agency. This book is therefore invaluable to researchers of female subjectivity in any genre, precisely due to Finn’s ability to apply her critical approach to such a wide generic range.

University of Edinburgh, July 2014