Amy’s Marginalia: The Other Queen

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you probably recall my angst over a new Philippa Gregory book that I saw while on a layover in the UK.  I resisted the urge to purchase it, knowing that in a month’s time, I’d have the one I’d reserved from the library.  Well, the wait is finally over, and I’ve finished relishing The Other Queen.

Let me first tell you about Philippa Gregory’s talents.  If you ask me, she’s the queen historical fiction, bodice ripping included.  Gregory is most famous for The Other Boleyn Girl, recently made famous by Natalie Portman, Scarlet Johansson, and Eric Bana (as read off the cover of my own personal copy of the film, of course).  She specializes in Henry the Eighth and his wives, but she’ll branch into his offspring occasionally as well. Here, we have a book that fits the latter category.

Having savored many of Gregory’s novels, I can attest to the fact that The Other Queen ranks up there with her best work (other favorites include The Other Boleyn Girl and The Constant Princess).  She’s accomplished something few authors have dared:  make Mary Queen of Scots a tragic, sympathetic heroine.  Always poised against Elizabeth, who does no wrong in history’s eyes, Mary is destined to play Elizabeth’s dark foil or at the least, evil foe.  With such a preponderance of characterizations and historical villainizations, Gregory sets out to capture the real woman behind the seemingly villainous historical actions.  While Mary doesn’t come away “scot free” (sorry, couldn’t resist, and neither could Gregory at one point, for that matter), she does have one of the most sympathetic portrayals that I’ve ever encountered.  You can’t help feeling sorry for her at times, and that in itself, is a great victory.

To make Mary look better, one does need to take a few shots at Elizabeth, and Gregory has always been willing to tarnish the “Virgin Queen’s” reputation.  Personally, I think she goes a bit overboard with her attempts to villainize Elizabeth, and in the name of saving Mary’s reputations, she’s simply sullying Elizabeth in the same way that Mary has been historically corrupted.

Another great character in this book, second to Mary, is Bess Hardwick, wife of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who is the Scot’s Queen’s jailer.  Bess is a self made woman, everything that the Mary is not, in upbringing, in family, in manners, and in faith.  While Mary is a loyal Catholic, Bess embraces Protestantism and all it offers to those willing to take over the spoils of the former Catholic Church in England.  Bess decorates her home with former abbey treasures and has made homes of former church properties.  When these two women live in the same home, their differences will naturally play upon each other.  At times, Bess’ obsession with money became grating, but her steadfast ambition for her family echoes that of women like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who simply want to provide a legacy for their children.

One thing I especially love about this period of time is the battles waged in England over Protestantism and Catholicism.  This story is set during Shakespeare’s lifetime, while he was a young man (though he gets no mention here, which makes sense since he wasn’t famous yet).   Shakespeare lived in Elizabeth’s England, which re-instituted the Protestant state church and was recovering from her sister’s persecution of Protestants. and  The battle between these two queens was the battle between these two forms of the Christian faith, and the result dictated the future of a nation.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. you’ve inspired me! It sounds like a heavy read, in that she must have to weave historical background through out the story, but from what you say, she’s doing it masterfully so the story and the characters shine.

    My mom has been urging me to see the OBG. I missed it in theaters, it had very bad reviews in Houston, which is a conservative town. Think it would make a good snowy day flick to watch on the laptop?

    AL: I wouldn’t call it a “heavy” read. In fact, I tend to use Gregory’s books as my vacation reading, but that’s also my particular tastes.

    The movie would be a great snowy day laptop flick. Not sure Bernie would go for it though, since it’s kind of a chick flick. I had to bribe Dan…or was it blackmail…to watch it with me.

  2. I havenot come across this book but it does sound interesting. In the 17 posts I recently did on Yorkshire, many of them were tied in with the religious wars of the times.

    AL: I should have thought about the fact that your travels might have shown some of the places in the book! I have no clue if the castles are even still standing. Thanks for reminding me. I’ll go poke around and see if I see anything she mentioned! I do know that the book is selling in the UK. I saw it at WH SMITH in Heathrow.

  3. I liked the OBG movie…so did my hubby.

    The book sounds like a good one. In my younger days I read tons and tons of historical fiction, nearly all of it about the English kings and queens, and particularly this era. I learned more history in those books than I did at school. Mary Queen of Scots was an interesting woman with a tragic sort of life.

    Bess of Hardwick was quite an interesting figure too; years ago I found an article about her in a magazine and I still have it and read it now and then. Not all women in those days let themselves be tied down by convention and expectation in the society of their day.

    AL: Good for your hubby, watching and being willing to admit he liked it! I know what you mean about learning through historical fiction. History books are dry, but they’re just as biased as historical fiction, if you ask me. At least this way, you get to pick and choose which historical figures you get to learn about. I’m sick of learning about all the men who were in power. It’s nice to read the stories about the women who were a little less famous, but not necessarily any less important, if you ask me. Bess of Hardwick is an amazing example. I’d love to learn more about her, now that I have this little introduction.


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