13 April 2010

Book Review: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

The Other Queen In 1569, Mary Queen of Scots is placed in the custody of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Tutbury Castle is a glorified prison, but Mary has every confidence in her ability to escape. There is no shortage of people willing to help an anointed queen back to her rightful place in the world, and if she exerts sufficient charm her gaoler just might become one of them. George is dazzled by the lovely young queen, and cannot help going against his better judgement to provide her with whatever concessions he can. This raises the ire of his wife Bess, who can only watch in horror as their fortunes are drained by Mary’s spendthrift ways. Worse, Bess is increasingly aware that she has done the last thing she ever wanted - married a fool.

For the first few chapters, the way in which the book is written - three different first-person viewpoints, alternating chapter by chapter - annoyed me. Then I got used to it. Then two of those viewpoint characters began driving me nuts instead.

Not Bess. I admired her determination to fulfill the trust placed in her by the previous husband who bequeathed his lands to her care. Having to contend with two queens, an earl, and William Cecil to do so, only a quite formidable woman could have succeeded. Her plans were self-centred - she gave far more thought to her beloved Chatsworth than to her husband - but in that age, a woman would be well-advised to hold on to whatever security she could get. And if her youth was behind her and her husband a fool, land was the best security available. If she had been the centre of the novel, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it more.

But George and Mary ... I’ve long been aware that few things will make me dislike a book faster than a female character pining for Mr Wrong. Turns out if you reverse the genders, the effect is the same. Ignoring both his monarch and his wife to go sighing over said monarch’s rival and prisoner ... George, whatever were you thinking?

And while I can appreciate that a monarch bred to rule in an age that believed in the divine right of kings would have a strong sense of her own importance, Mary’s arrogance left me wanting to slap her. So did the way she made free with large quantities of other people’s money. A character who doesn’t comprehend the value of money is a character guaranteed to drive me crazy.

Reading about her, I couldn’t quite decide whether she was the victim more of the plots of others or of the webs she attempted to weave herself. Sometimes, when she was waiting and hoping again for Bothwell to come and rescue her, she seemed incapable of doing much for herself; yet at others she was audacious in her attempts to free herself. Her one good trait (in this version of her, at least) was the capacity to endure. Nor could I fathom just what her relationship was with Bothwell; perhaps it was regal reticence, but the suspicion did occur to me that the author herself was undecided.

In that “again” lies the great flaw of this novel: It’s repetitive. Bess worries about money and mentally curses George. George traipses after Mary with puppy-dog eyes. Mary anticipates the moment when her supporters will carry her to the throne of England and looks down her nose at people. Over and over and over. It’s a shame it was given to me; I’d feel guilty trading in a gift at the UBS.

Rating: C-

No comments:

Post a Comment

Newer Posts Older Posts Home
Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776