A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Philippa Gregory’s dazzling new novel looks at the captive years of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary, in flight from rebels in Scotland, has trusted her cousin Elizabeth I’s promise of sanctuary; but she finds herself imprisoned as the enforced guest of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his dominant wife, Bess of Hardwick. The newly married couple welcome the doomed queen, certain that serving as her hosts and jailors will bring them nothing but advantage in the competitive world of Tudor England. To their horror they find that their home becomes the epicentre of intrigue against Elizabeth, and even their own loyalty comes under suspicion. If their marriage is threatened by George’s hopeless admiration for the beautiful young queen, they will face ruin. But if his devotion to the Queen of England is compromised by his love for the Queen of Scots, he will face the gallows. The English lords conspire with Spain, the Duke of Northumberland and the Northern earls to free Mary from imprisonment, a plot that will be the greatest threat Elizabeth has ever faced. But then the great spy-master Cecil sets the trap to catch them all, setting the Scots queen on the road to her death at Fotheringay. Here is a story of two women fighting for one man, of two queens competing for dominance, and of one remarkable woman who is prepared to die rather than deny her principles or need for freedom.
With grateful thanks to the path forged by Good Kirsty and Bad Kirsty at Vulpes, here’s my review:
Nice Anne: Goodness me but that’s a very meaty blurb …
Nasty Anne: And you haven’t included all of it either as your hand was getting tired. But I think we get the gist.
Nice Anne: Indeed! It all sounds rather wonderful and definitely persuaded me to buy it …
Nasty Anne: Although that little voice in your head (ie me) did tell you that really you’ve read a lot of fiction set in and around this era and isn’t it a teensy weensy bit dull by now?
Nice Anne: [coughs] You may be right but I’m determined to ignore you, especially as you are such a wicked wench.
Nasty Anne: Much like the women in this book then. When does a strong female character become an annoying one? That’s the question you have to face, my dear …
Nice Anne: Yes, but not yet. I’d like to put it on the record that Philippa Gregory does write good historical fiction and I usually enjoy reading what she produces.
Nasty Anne: Usually … hmm.
Nice Anne: All right. But not even you can say this book is badly written or that at any point we didn’t want to finish it, can you?
Nasty Anne: Good point well made, which isn’t bad for you as you do go on so usually, I must say.
Nice Anne: [rising above the jibe] And what about the character of Bess Hardwick? We both liked her. After all, who can resist a woman who makes herself rich and important purely by dint of her own determination and business acumen?
Nasty Anne: Though she did have to marry a fair number of rich husbands to get there. Something I must admit I also admire, you know. Anyway, I’ll allow the point that Bess was the most exciting main character in the novel, even where she went on rather too much about her possessions and how to get them, maintain them and protect them. But what about that manipulative little tart Queen Mary and the wishy-washy George? You can’t get away without explaining more about them, my dear. The Book Foxes wouldn’t allow it.
Nice Anne: Darnit. I was hoping to pass swiftly on but I’m honestly not sure to what. I do have to admit that I found Mary a nasty piece of work and the wretched George nothing more than a weak-willed man who was severely lacking in common sense. Which was a shame as we did spend a lot of the novel in their company, sharing the limelight with Bess as they did. They’re just not very pleasant people. Still the writing is good so it’s not all bad news.
Nasty Anne: Don’t change the subject! You’ve not mentioned the middle of the book yet where things go very much awry. If I’m allowed my own opinion, rather than always bowing to yours, I’d say it was distinctly flabby in that section and if I have to read one more time about letters received, secret codes, threatened loyalties, the list of things Bess has in her houses, plots and counterplots, I think I might have to scream and send someone to the Tower. Which might have been the best place to be as at least there we would get to see more of the deliciously evil (but possibly not as evil as me) Cecil who appears in the novel far far too infrequently even though he’s so deeply delicious. Why couldn’t the story have been about him? There was more interest in one paragraph of his conversation than in whole chapters of the Interminable Triangle of Mary, George and Bess, goddammit.
Nice Anne: Keep calm, dear – you know what your blood pressure is like. Neither of us is as young as we used to be. Though I have to admit you do have a point. Cecil was marvellous and I missed him greatly when he wasn’t on the page, which was often. But it wasn’t, I imagine, the author’s intention for him to be anything more than a secondary character, although his influence invades the whole book.
Nasty Anne: At last! Something we can agree on – that makes a pleasant change. The crafty input of Cecil was a high point for us both, but I’m not sure I’ll be picking up the next Philippa Gregory offering …
Nice Anne: … even though we’ve both enjoyed them in the past? After all, we loved The Other Boleyn Girl, didn’t we? That one certainly got our vote.
Nasty Anne: I’m still not convinced if that will encourage me to spend our hard-earned cash on another one, but I suppose you’ll soften in the end. You always do …
Nice Anne: We’ll see. If she writes a book that doesn’t have the word “other” in the title, I might be persuaded. Which just goes to show that your influence must be rubbing off on me at last.
Nasty Anne: It’s about time (exit stage left in a strop and with a triumphant smile …)
Nice Anne: Thank goodness she’s gone! Anyway, my final conclusion is this: The Other Queen is written well enough to keep you turning the page, middle slump or no middle slump, but sadly it’s a long way from being vintage Gregory. Ah well.
The Other Queen, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN: 978 0 00 719034 8
[Anne, whether in Nice or Nasty mode, is growing rather wearied of historical fiction all of the same type, however well written, and wonders if anyone out there can do anything new with it, please?…]