Oh dear, my reading has taken a serious nose-dive since Christmas. I’m no longer going into the office which means no tube journeys which in turn means no reading. I know, I’m at home all day every day it’s not like I don’t have any time to read but the thing is that I’m writing my thesis (still) and at home there are distracting things like old episodes of Casualty, and the boxset of The Returned and food. All of which mean that reading is getting put on a backburner.
But seeing as I love a challenge and a list to tick things off, I was determined not to get behind on the monthly genre challenge I decided to take on this year. January was historical fiction which isn’t a genre I’m fond of to tell the truth. Still I headed to the library and wandered around for what felt like an age in itself before I found a book I thought I might enjoy. I picked up a copy of The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory.
There are a couple of reasons I chose this one; the first being that I’ve heard lots about how wonderful Gregory is as an author so I thought this would be a good time to check her out for myself . The second is that as a British schoolchild there are only two periods of history that you learn about in any real detail – the Roman Empire and the Tudors (actually doing GCSE history I also learned an awful lot about the history of transport but the less said about that, the better). My favourite of these two was always the Tudors and in particular Queen Elizabeth I. She always seemed like such an impressive ruler, hers was one of the longest reigns to date and she saw off challenges to her rule from a significant proportion of the world who saw her as a heathen bastard (in the traditional sense of the word) who had no right to the throne. One of those challenges came from her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots who believed herself to be the true Queen of England, Scotland and France, and the subject of The Other Queen. It’s a story I thought I knew but I was interested to flesh out my limited understanding which was my second reason for choosing to read this book.
The Other Queen is set in the period (1568-1587) of Mary’s imprisonment in England after fleeing from Scotland when she was forced to abdicate because of wide-spread opposition to her marriage to Lord Bothwell. She came to England believing that her cousin Elizabeth would help her reclaim her throne but was instead imprisoned for almost 20 years culminating in her arrest and execution for treason.
The book is told from three perspectives – Mary, her jailer/host George Talbot, the earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Bess. When we first join them, George and Bess are newly-weds who are greatly honoured to be playing host to a queen, whatever her fallen status. As the years go on however, things begin to sour. Supporting a queen in the manner to which she is accustomed takes its toll on their treasury and George falls for the beautiful, charming Mary and is blind to her endless plotting for escape and rebellion. Bess on the other hand is far too astute to be taken in and is mortified by her husband’s foolishness.
I’ll be honest, I struggled with this book. I found the plot somewhat repetitive, Mary was always plotting, Bess was always worrying about what to mortgage or sell and George was always moping about, disheartened that he couldn’t declare his love for Mary and that no one else could see her innocence. Even when there was an uprising all we saw of it was a cross-country trip to a new castle and second-hand reports of who was where. I can’t blame Gregory for the plot, she could only work with what she had after all, but it was a thick book to have so little variation of theme.
I also struggled to really care for any of the characters. To begin with I quite liked Bess but although I could see why she was so preoccupied with the cost of keeping the Scots Queen,I got tired of hearing how afraid she was of losing her house at Chatsworth and what it meant to her and how much she was putting rent up by and how her husband had so many debts and so and so forth. George I found incredibly shallow and while his loyalty to the queen (Elizabeth) is something to be admired, his refusal to stand up for what he truly believed in coupled with his capacity for whining about his refusal to stand up for what he truly believed in really got on my wick. Not to mention the fact that his loyalty only lasts as long as the queen is on the throne, as soon as a new monarch is declared he would change his religion, his values and his whole life. That kind of loyalty may have been necessary for survival but it’s not particularly admirable.
What I did like about this book is that it presented a different view of a story I thought I knew. You know that old adage about history being written by the victor? Well I think we tend to think of history (the subject) as being objective, academic, the passage of time giving us the clarity to make rational judgements about who was at fault and what the facts of a story are. The story I was taught at school was that Mary ‘s second husband Lord Darnley was murdered by her lover, Lord Bothwell so that they could marry making him King Consort. The story presented in the book is of a frightened woman abducted by Lord Bothwell after seeing him murder her husband, raped and forced to marry her abuser because of a pregnancy which could have cost her her throne, her son and her life. Not a story I’d ever heard before and whatever the truth may be, it was a good reminder that we only ever really hear one side of a story.
The other thing that I got out of The Other Queen is something I remember thinking as I read Katherine, my only other foray into historical fiction, which was set significantly further back in history. This was the sense of how perilous life at court must have been. Actually you can probably get the same idea from watching Blackadder II but it’s harder to get a serious idea from a comedy show. There’s a point when George remarks that everyone at court must be guilty of treason on a daily basis as it takes so little for a crime to be committed – something as small as mentioning that the queen may one day die is considered an arrestable offence and the situation grows ever more volatile. Despite the limited life expectancy, incredible poverty and general misery, it was probably far preferable to be a serf in the 16th century!