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.