Monday, May 16, 2011

24. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

For a long while, I considered myself an avid Philippa Gregory fan. The Other Boleyn Girl is one of my favorite books and I also loved The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover, both of which I analyzed for a thesis-type project my senior year in high school on portrayals of Elizabeth I in fiction. Then I read The Boleyn Inheritance. The concept was very interesting, a novel told from three points of view; those of Jane Boleyn or Lady Rochford, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. Somehow, this structure didn't do it for me, the characters seemed more stereotypical and less realistic, I didn't like the constant skipping between views, and I just didn't feel that it provided much insight into these three women, except for maybe Katherine Howard. That turned me off Gregory for a long time, until now.

I originally planned to read this book as part of my directed study on early modern women writers and the portrayal of early modern women in later fiction. I picked this book because it looks at two important early modern women; Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, during the early years of Mary's imprisonment in England, when Bess and her husband George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, served as her guardians. While Elizabeth I is not a point of view character, we hear the other characters' opinions of her and we do see conversations between her and the Earl of Shrewsbury. Since this book was organized like The Boleyn Inheritance, told from the points of view of Bess, George, and Mary,I was nervous how I would feel about that. Especially at the beginning, the brevity of each section and the repetition of characters' thoughts to establish their stereotypes grated on me.I did feel that this structure was more useful to this book, because each character was privy to different information and had different past and present experiences that came together to present a more nuanced portrait of what life was actually like during this time period in England and particularly in the Talbot household.

I do think Gregory did a good job of getting into the mindset of the period and particularly creating a sense of urgency around events that are already determined for the reader. Gregory reminds us that the Norfolk rebellion was by no means a small threat and could easily have changed the entire course of history. She also states in her Author's Note that the "principal difference between [Mary] and her successful cousin Elizabeth was good advisors and good luck, not-as the traditional history suggests-one woman who ruled with her head and the other who was dominated by her heart." In this, I think Gregory succeeds and her Mary is clever and calculating, far from a slave to her passions, she uses men's attraction to her to achieve her own ends, not that differently than Elizabeth, actually. This is a difference from other portrayals I have seen of Mary, Schilller's Mary, for example, is intellectual, but motivated by her desires and her faith. Gregory's Mary is motivated by a sense of entitlement, her proper place in the world, that the Catholic Church supports.

One of Gregory's sources is Alison Weir's Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley , which comes to some hard conclusions that do not go hand in hand with the romantic fictions around Mary. I am very intrigued by Gregory's choices in this regard, as she seems to reach a sort of middle ground between the romance and Weir's hard facts that, in my opinion, has some psychological truth to it. Weir concludes that Bothwell did kidnap and rape Mary against her will, and she agreed to cover it up in marriage due to pregnancy. Gregory extends that into a desire to maintain the mythos of the queen's sacred person, with which her fictional Mary is very concerned, and also creates a complicated reliance of Mary on Bothwell. She continually writes to him for help, though she implies to others that he raped her and their marriage is not valid. She seems to have developed a dependence on and respect for him, while recognizing that he is a criminal. Gregory also has Bothwell give Mary the bond where the lords signed the agreement to Darnley's murder, asserted by Weir as a historical probability. While Weir told us what happened, Gregory brings in the human element, and delightfully complicates it more than my imagination did.

The portrayal of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, I also really appreciated. It would have been easy to present him as a fool, as indeed his wife Bess comes to think of him. But in including George's perspective, Gregory adds, besides various scenes at court and trial that the women could never have witnessed, a portrayal of a truly honorable man who is nevertheless not lacking in sense or feeling. While George behaves naively in the beginning, he makes realizations on his own and we come to see his perspective as an "old lord" as legitimate and we can sympathize with him as both Bess and Mary betray him to save themselves. I don't think the Earl of Shrewsbury has been shown in quite this light before, and I am very grateful for it, because the historical perspective of him as an old fool and yet valued advisor to Elizabeth I do not quite mesh.

I had issues with this novel in terms of language. Obviously, it is written in the modern vernacular and I don't have a problem with that per se, except when it comes to specific phrases or word usages that jump out at me as not being current to the time period, such as "stuff". Also, I felt that some character aspects, particularly in Bess, were glossed over. Gregory makes a big deal about Bess' emotional and psychological investment in her homes and properties, certainly realistic, but the last section is from Bess' PoV and includes only one sentence on the loss of the house she has cared so much for throughout the book. She does detail her new house in Hardwick though. It's just a big jump in time and I suppose it's hard to show how a character changes or stays the same over that period, but Bess' sudden forgiveness of George and Mary and lack of concern over that house didn't seem entirely consistent with her character.

I definitely plan on using and comparing analyses of The Other Queen for my ongoing academic interest in early modern women.

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