This reading group guide for The Last Tudor includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory
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. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
Bestselling author Philippa Gregory tells the captivating story of Lady Jane Grey, who held the throne of England for nine days, and her lesser-known but equally fascinating sisters—the beautiful and romantic Katherine and Mary, small in stature but not in spirit—all of whom defy their queen in pursuit of what is most important to them. When the young king Edward VI falls ill and is rumored to be planning his succession, a plot is hatched to marry off Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey as quickly as possible in the hopes that one will bear a Tudor heir and bring the family closer to the throne. Indeed, Jane is named queen by the dying king; but everything goes awry when the dead king’s papist half sister, Mary, asserts herself as the rightful heir to the throne. Imprisoned and threatened with death, Jane refuses to speak the words renouncing her Protestant faith that might spare her from a ghastly end. Later, Katherine and Mary are also faced with grave decisions when they are imprisoned by their cousin Queen Elizabeth I after marrying their true loves without her permission. Will the queen show them the mercy that was denied to their sister or will they be forced to follow the deathbed advice of their sister Jane and learn to accept a tragic fate?Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What role do faith and religion play during the time period represented in The Last Tudor
? What is the relationship between religion and politics, and how does this relationship affect the cultural climate of England? Is the country mostly united in their faith or divided? What impact does this have on the royals of England?
2. What is “the true religion” according to Lady Jane Grey? Why does Jane believe that she and her family do not need to earn their place in heaven as others do? Does her faith ultimately serve her well? Discuss.
3. Consider the title of the book. Who are the members of the Tudor family? Which character or characters does the title of the book refer to?
4. Evaluate the roles and the treatment of women as represented in the novel. How are marriage and childbirth depicted? Is the education of women perceived as positive or negative? Would you say that the women of the novel are depicted as powerful or helpless? Do they garner much loyalty from the men in their lives? Discuss.
5. Katherine believes that “if you are a Tudor you don’t really have parents.” What does she mean? What does her statement reveal about family dynamics and the relationship between parent and child during this time?
6. Why does Elizabeth punish Katherine and Mary for their marriages? Why does she refuse to show the same mercy for the Grey sisters that she shows for some others? Do you believe that her actions are justified or were you surprised by her lack of mercy to her relatives?
7. What does Mary Grey believe is Elizabeth’s greatest fear? What does Mary say that she has come to believe is the greatest sin and what does this reveal about Elizabeth? Do you agree that this “sin” is Elizabeth’s greatest flaw? How does this same “sin” or characteristic affect the others in the novel?
8. How does each Grey sister respond to her incarceration? What is the outcome for each? What does Mary wear at the conclusion of the novel and what does she believe this clothing represents? Is her choice to do this surprising? Why or why not?
9. What advice does Jane leave for her sisters after she receives the news of her impending execution? Do Katherine and Mary follow her advice? How does each interpret their sister’s final words?
10. Consider the theme of loyalty. Which of the characters is loyal and to whom? What seems to be at the root of their allegiance? Conversely, who betrays another person and why? Does the novel ultimately suggest to what or whom one should be most loyal? Explain.Enhance Your Book Club
1. Choose one of the major characters and compare Gregory’s treatment to the historical accounts. Discuss what stands out in common among the texts and, alternatively, consider what the fictionalized account of this character may be able to reveal that historical accounts cannot or do not.
2. Consider The Last Tudor
alongside film or television adaptations about the Tudors, such as the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl
and the Showtime miniseries The Tudors
. What common themes emerge and how do the representations compare?
3. Visit Philippa Gregory’s website at www.philippagregory.com
to learn more about the author and her works including the other novels in her Plantagenet and Tudor Court series.A Conversation with Philippa Gregory Tell us about the origins of The Last Tudor. There are many stories about Lady Jane Grey, but why were you interested in telling the story of all three Grey sisters particularly?
I am always interested when I discover a woman who played an important role in history but whose story has been mostly ignored, or even forgotten. Jane’s story led me to her less famous sisters—which is a familiar route for me—and then I was fascinated by the two young women themselves. Katherine Grey was a major player at court, but, because she was successfully excluded from the succession by Elizabeth, imprisoned, and isolated, we have lost her from the historical record. Mary Grey is almost totally ignored.Why did you choose to tell the story with three different narrators? Was there one voice that was easier for you to channel as you wrote?
I wanted to tell each sister’s life in her own voice, as they were separated so early, that no single narrator could have described the three lives. I find first-person present-tense narration very stimulating and effective in historical fiction, and I was relieved to find that moving from one character to another was quite smooth—as they were each so striking, and each had her own voice. The most difficult transition was from the famous Jane to the less known Katherine, and I was helped by Jane’s genuine letter to her sister which starts the Katherine section (in Jane’s voice) and then we realize that Katherine is reading the letter and responding to it. It’s a very powerful contrast for me between the famous letter and Katherine’s sense of outrage that it is so impersonal. In that one scene, I really felt the difference between the two sisters and a sense of their relationship.Would you say that you felt more sympathetic to one of the Grey sisters than the others? If so, why? Is there one sister that you can relate to more than the others?
One of the experiences of writing in first person is that as the narrator’s point of view shifts, my interest and preference shifts too. I first felt this most strongly when, having written The White Queen
from the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville, then I wrote The Red Queen
from the point of view of her rival and enemy. I could not have completed the novel if I had not changed sides! In The Last Tudor
, I felt the sisters succeed each other in my imagination, and I really welcomed each one as she “came” to me.What did you think of Katherine’s and Mary’s decisions to marry their loves without the queen’s permission even after the tragic fate of their sister Jane?
As I make clear in the novel, they were legally free to marry without the queen’s permission, but they were definitely taking a risk. I don’t think Elizabeth would have ever given them permission to marry, so they had little choice but to defy her once they were committed to their husbands. Elizabeth’s cruelty to them is exceptional and borders on the irrational. I don’t think Katherine and Mary would have predicted that Elizabeth would have reacted to such an extreme. Their kinswoman Margaret Douglas did far worse and suffered far less.Who are some of the novelists that you find most inspiring or compelling today and why?
I tend to read the classics of English literature for pleasure, so I love Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, E. M. Forster.How does the story of the Grey sisters correspond to your previous works? Are they much like the main characters of your other works? If so, what unites them?
They should be like other characters of their time period, if I have done a good job of capturing the mind-set of the Tudor woman. I think that Mary’s blunt realism and humor is rather like me, and that comes out in other novels. I think Katherine in her prettiness and silliness is rather like my portrait of Katherine Howard, and Jane’s mixture of piety and childish pomposity is rather like Margaret Beaufort—another spiritual girl who sought religion to compensate for the lack of a family life. But the main inspiration for them is the record of their lives and my drawing their characters from that.Do you have a favorite television show, miniseries, or film adaption of the story of the Tudors? Why do you think that they are such a compelling family?
I think that people love the production that introduced them to the Tudors, so my favorite film is Anne of the Thousand Days
which I completely loved when I first saw it as a teenager. Of course, the Tudors are great material for novels and dramas because their personal life is lived so very large, and as tyrants, their feelings are so important to everyone.What books would you say had a strong influence on you when you were a child?
I am very glad that I was given the run of a public library at a very early age so I was reading a lot very young. I loved The Jungle Book
and The Just So Stories
, all E. Nesbit’s children’s novels, The Secret Garden
, Peter Pan
, all the Heidi books, The Wind in the Willows
and all C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.How did The Last Tudor change the way you write? Was there anything that surprised you in the course of writing the book?
I was surprised how smoothly it went! The transition from one character to another went very well; the history around Jane is very full, so it was possible to do an almost day-by-day description of her usurpation of the throne. There is less on Katherine but she was a very inspiring character, and Mary was a joy to imagine. The challenge of the book was to find a way to end it which was satisfying and not hopelessly sad: since it is the story of two girls who die in captivity because of the cruelty of their times. There’s no way that there could be a happy ending, but by closing it with Mary’s freedom and pride in herself I was able to end it like a novel with a shape to it, and not like a history you expect to end in the death of the subject. It seems to me that one of the points of writing a novel rather than a history is that you can make artistic decisions about the meaning and route of the story, rather than telling everything—which is the conventional history approach.Can you please tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?
I am working on two projects at once and they are both equally fascinating. I am researching and thinking about writing a history of women in Tudor England, very much inspired by my research for the novels, and I am starting a novel, which is going to be the first of a series about a family who will rise from poverty in the 1600s.In addition to your writing, you are also involved in charity work. Can you tell us about that? What causes are you interested in and how can your readers contribute if they are inclined to do so?
I should be very happy if any readers wanted to join with me in a wonderful project in The Gambia—one of the poorest countries in Africa. I have been paying for the digging of wells in the country’s rural primary schools for more than twenty years (ever since I went to The Gambia to research for my novel about slavery, A Respectable Trade
). The wells are commissioned in The Gambia by Ismaila Sisay, a retired headmaster who has worked with me on this since the very beginning, and I am proud to call him my friend. He interviews the schools to make sure that they will teach sustainable agriculture and have the support of the village and then he commissions the well digger who comes out with a spade and a bowl and digs a well—it’s that simple. Then we provide a concrete liner for the well and a rope and bucket, and a safety wall and gate. Then the children create a market garden around the well and learn to grow their own food, and have water to drink and vegetables at lunchtime. We’ve done some big wells, but most of the wells go down about 50 feet and cost only $600. I send my money for new wells to be dug every quarter, and I am so happy when anyone helps me by making a contribution. You can see more about our work on my website—click on the Gardens for The Gambia button where you can donate online, or, you can send a check to Gardens for The Gambia, PO Box 165, North Yorkshire, UK TS9 7WX.