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Not our Queen, the Other one!
The Other Queen - Philippa Gregory
Member Name: i_am_joy
The Other Queen - Philippa Gregory
Date: 28/12/08, updated on 28/12/08 (125 review reads)
Advantages: Well written, a good story, the author has wonderful historic knowledge
Disadvantages: Thoroughly selfish main characters
When I got The Other Queen home I started reading straight away and was immediately drawn into life during the tenuous reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch who knew she was holding onto her throne by the tips of her fingers with other nobles constantly plotting against her with claims to the throne at least as strong as hers.
However, this book isn't about Queen Elizabeth. It's about Queen Mary of Scotland, heir to Elizabeth's own throne as granddaughter to the sister of King Henry VIII with many people believing she should be Queen of England before the bastard Elizabeth. The story begins with Mary escaping from the castle where she has been held since fleeing to England in fear of her life in Scotland, the political ramifications of Mary being here are immense and a fearful government attempts to put her on trial for treason. There is, of course, no case against her so she is shut away with a noble family while Queen Elizabeth decides what is to be done with her.
The family chosen are the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury, George Talbot and his self-made wealthy wife Elizabeth Hardwicke. At first it is a great honour to house the stunningly elegant young Queen, but as time goes on and no plans are made for Mary to be returned to Scotland the notoriously penny pinching Countess begins to despise the expenditure on the Queen. She also realises her husband is developing an affection for the beautiful, flirtatious Queen and is desperate to save her marriage, her wealth and her reputation.
The Other Queen is narrated in sequence by the Countess (Bess), Queen Mary and George Talbot and it soon becomes apparent that it's the version of events as described by Bess that really gives the reader the true bones about what is happening. Some people don't like novels narrated by different people but I think it works very well in The Other Queen as I enjoyed being able to read the thoughts of three very separate people, all of who are absolutely instrumental to the plot. Each chapter is clearly marked with the name of the person who is telling the tale in that particular part of the book and the writing styles used are so unique to each person that even without spotting the name you would instantly know who has taken up the story.
I was aware of the fact that the Earl and Countess had been responsible for the care of Queen Mary but in a fleeting way as my passion for the Tudor dynasty tends to begin with King Henry VIII and his wives and ends after the reigns of his children. This story has taken the historical fact of what happened while Queen Mary was lodged with the Earl, but as usual Gregory has woven her own interpretation around the true facts. Historically it isn't clear whether or not there was any kind of love affair between George Talbot and Queen Mary, but there probably wasn't as he was in bad health and certainly not the kind of man the beauty loving Queen would have had any romantic interest in. He was, however, her friend in a time when she had very few of those. He was kind to her, perhaps he even developed some sort of crush on the beautiful Queen, but I doubt very much that he would have chosen these frivolous feelings over Bess who he adored and admired as an astute business woman.
Still, the very thought of one of the greatest men in England falling so in love with his prisoner that he would risk everything for her is a wonderfully romantic notion and worked well in this novel. George Talbot was a man who valued his honour, during the period of this book he was the only Earl in England and was famed throughout the Tudor court as a man who could and would not go against his own principles. Bess of Hardwick, the Countess, has risen from humble beginnings to become the wealthiest woman in the Elizabethan era and at first cannot believe her luck that her fourth marriage has given her the tantalising right to say 'My husband, the Earl'. She's a greedy woman who gained her wealth through the desecration of England's monasteries and churches when Henry VIII decided the country was no longer Catholic, she uses church candlesticks on her dinner table and her safe room is full of the spoils of the Catholic church. Of course, she has no faith other than the desire for money and lands but Queen Mary is a staunch Catholic who resents the way the destruction of her religion has furthered unprincipled people such as Bess.
Usually in a Philippa Gregory novel I'll warm to the majority of the characters and want to see them do well. Obviously most of her characters are real life people from history so I'll already be aware of their fates' at the end of the book, but the author is such an accomplished storyteller that I can dismiss the blatant fact that Lord So-And-So was eventually beheaded and really hope against hope through the novel that history was wrong and he can go and live out his life with his lover and children. However, I found all three leading characters in The Other Queen to be thoroughly unlikeable and at times rather irritating.
When Queen Mary takes up the story the first few pages are rather disjointed and give the impression of a woman in distress who cannot believe that she is being treated so badly. Written badly but well, if you understand my meaning. I was immediately irritated by the way she kept talking about how beautiful and graceful she was, and by repeating that she is 'a Queen' constantly as though it's important for the reader not to forget this. I didn't allow myself to get too annoyed with her as I knew it was the authors way of instilling into us that this young frightened woman was of royal blood, an ordained Queen and therefore supposedly untouchable. But as her pages went on I realised that Queen Mary was going to be speaking like this throughout the entire novel, by the 100th page I knew she was Queen and her beauty had been commented on so many times that she took on quite a Mona Lisa persona in my head! I wanted to hear what she was really thinking about the plots to help her escape and snatch Queen Elizabeth's throne, about the strange courtship from the Duke of Northumberland, why she played off George Talbot and his wife in such a cruel way. Unfortunately these major events seemed to be glossed over each time the Queen narrated and I got the impression that Gregory struggled to fill this enigmatic and very interesting character out.
I found the simplistic view by Queen Mary to be both strange and charming. She had been bought up in the beautiful French court so was naturally graceful and sophisticated by English standards, but she had been treated like a thing of beauty for so long that at 26 years old she honestly seemed to believe herself untouchable. She thinks she is a sacred being, an ordained Queen who can never be harmed by a mere mortal. She answers only to God, which is strange as it soon becomes apparent in the book that she fears for her life and has already been raped by a Scottish Lord yet still she maintains the belief that eventually she will be returned to her kingdom and marry well for the good of her baby son. She's quite a tragic figure actually because she really believes that she has the power to rule Scotland, and England if she gets her way, but while she is clever and devious enough to plot and scheme, she is rather well manipulated by the great men of the country.
George Talbot, I could have strangled him! Like Queen Mary's beauty, the fact that the Earl was a honourable man was shoved down my throat on practically every page yet I thought he behaved extremely dishonourably towards his hard working wife. As his feelings for the Queen deepened the Earl treated Bess with cruelty and disregard which must have been hard for a forthright person such as her to stand. She didn't love him of course, she married him because he was a good man who could provide for her the houses and mansions she coveted. But it still hurt to see him simpering over the Queen and putting her needs above those of his wife, George didn't see this for one minute and his chapters swung between his love for the beautiful Queen and the spiteful criticism of the Countess who was putting most of the money and all of the effort into housing his royal guest.
That's not to say that Bess is a particularly nice character either. All she cared about through the book was her goods and how much gold was locked away in her safe room, this would have been endearing if she wasn't such a coarse and mean spirited character. She had been taught in one of her previous marriages how to make money work for her by keeping strict accounts, tallying up incomings and outgoings. She carried this lesson a little too far though and seemed to run her life and entire way of thinking on account books, she couldn't understand why it was such an honour to care for Queen Mary when she was spending so much of her hard earned money on the enterprise. I got the sense that she wanted to support her husband but when push came to shove I realised that her wealth would always come before any love or respect she held for anyone. I enjoyed the way she was put across as more of a loud mouthed woman than would usually be tolerated at that time, she was in the confidence of William Cecil (Queen Elizabeth's main advisor) and would swoon and bow to him whenever he wrote to her although to the reader it was obvious she was just one pawn that Cecil was taking advantage of in his attempts to rid England of Queen Mary.
The Other Queen is a lovely book, although not quite as compelling as other novels by Philippa Gregory set in the Tudor period. It kept me gripped because the threat of danger towards Queen Mary was constant and I found the intricate plots to be exciting and interesting. It's not terribly fast paced and there was not as much action involving Queen Elizabeth as I would have liked, although she is mentioned frequently and obviously the fate of the Earls house guest was ultimately in her hands. I didn't think it was a page turner like The Other Boleyn Girl or The Constant Princess, but at the same time it interested me enough to read long into the night and also to take the book into the bath with me.
The story is well constructed and left me with the hope that some good could come of the mess the three main characters found themselves in; the tale ran well and most loose ends were tied up neatly towards the end when we finally got to glimpse the suffering that Mary, George and Bess were going through in their own way. All of the incidental characters were well rounded and slotted nicely into the overall story, personally I'd have liked to have read more about how Elizabeth coped with this crisis but the novel would have had to take on a whole new concept for this to happen as the main branch throughout the narratives is that the English Queen kept them all in the dark about what was happening.
The Other Queen is available from Amazon for £8.54 with free delivery, this is reasonable I think for any Philippa Gregory fan as it's a hardback copy which has recently been reduced from almost £20. If you have never read this author before but have an interest in the Tudor period then I cannot praise her work highly enough, although I would recommend you start with another book before reading this one as there are much more interesting and inspired works in the Philippa Gregory portfolio.
Summary: Perhaps not the best Philippa Gregory novel, but a fantastic read anyway.