My thoughtsI'm so smitten with Philippa Gregory that The Other Queen was among those TBRs that I knew I'd get around to eventually. I finally espied the hardcover version - and oh-so-new still - on the library shelves. I indulged in some Tudor history for a few nights and again was wow-ed by Gregory's storytelling.
The book in one sentence: In a riot of conspiracy, Queen Elizabeth battles with Mary, Queen of Scots, to keep the crown of England.
I have read two Gregory books so far (The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance) and maybe I'm not reading these in order, but I don't feel too confused despite the many Elizabeths and Marys that have figured so far.
Just a little historical background: Mary Stewart is the only surviving heir of King James V. By marriage, she became a French Queen, but for a short while. She was widowed and she remarried to her first cousin Henry Stewart, who became Scots king. This husband died under strange circumstances. She married an Earl, who was believed to be her ex-husband's murderer; this controversial union led to an uprising, forcing Mary to abdicate her throne to her one-year-old son. Mary tried to regain her throne, and she sought the help of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, whose crown she hoped to eventually inherit. (Hence Mary is often referred to in the book as being a queen three times over.)
The book focuses on the first few years that Mary was under house (er, castle arrest) under Elizabeth through the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife. Mary was considered a threat because many believed that Mary was the rightful heir to the throne. The story is a tug-of-war when Elizabeth reneges on her promises to provide sanctuary and Mary plots her release with her powerful French and Spanish allies. An interesting twist is how Mary makes George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury fall in love with her, putting George in a bind between the woman he loves and his allegiance to his queen.
Like The Boleyn Inheritance, this story is told by several people: Mary's "jailors" George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick; and Mary, Queen of Scots. These different viewpoints give us an insider look at how both sides plot and connive while maintaining the so-called dignity of royal life. But The Boleyn Inheritance is hands down the winner, where you feel even for the most despicable of characters - in particular Jane Boleyn, the wife of George Boleyn who was responsible for sending both her husband and his sister Anne Boleyn to the gallows.
And here The Other Queen fails miserably. The portrayal of the two queens is skewed in heavily in favour of Mary. You can't help but fall in love with her, just like the Earl of Shrewbury did. She comes across as regal yet childlike, a beautiful strong woman, and very, very dignified. Then there is that small, rather annoying detail of how she pronounces Shrewsbury - Chowsbewwy - a small detail obviously aimed at making you want to go awww.
On the other hand, Elizabeth, in the very few instances where she does appear in the book, comes across as cold and a mere puppet of her powerful advisor Cecil. It makes me wonder why Gregory didn't make Elizabeth one of her storytellers -- didn't she have enough material to make Elizabeth more human?
I liked the portrayal of Bess of Hardwick, who in this day and age, was a "self-made" woman who rose from poverty and learned the hands-on running of her estates, albeit her estates are by virtue of marriage or the spoils of the overthrown papal rule. But as the novel wore on, her constant complaining of how hosting Mary was driving them to ruin, was getting on my nerves.
The story plods along. There is little action but there is quite a bit of psychological action, though it can wear you down after a while. And probably because 19 years is a long time to cover, the story skips on to the end where there is a strange dream sequence of Mary's execution, where Mary is the heroine, George is watching with tears in his eyes, and Bess - now separated from George and with her wealth intact - hears about it through others.
First line: Every woman should marry for her own advantage since her husband will represent her, as visible as her front door, for the rest of his life.
Last line: And nobody in this world will ever call me Mrs. Fool.
Verdict: A great historical novel through not as compelling as Gregory's other works.