The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
I had been awaiting the publication of The Other Queen since I finished reading The Virgin’s Lover in October of 2007. As time progressed and got closer to its September 16th release, my anticipation kept growing. Finding out that I would be seeing Philippa Gregory in person just a couple of short weeks added to my excitement. When I finally held the book in my hands, it was a happy day indeed. Although this novel did not displace The Other Boleyn Girl as my favorite of Gregory’s Tudor series, I enjoyed the time I spent with Mary, Queen of Scots, Lord Shrewsberry, and, most especially, Lady Bess of Hardwick.
When writing about Mary, Queen of Scots, Gregory chose to explore her first several years in British captivity. In what at first seemed like a royal privilege bestowed upon them by Queen Elizabeth, the Lord Shrewsberry and his new wife, Lady Bess, were asked to house the Scots Queen the short time that she would be safeguarded in Great Britain. What they found quite early on, however, was that holding court for the Queen of Scots was expensive and would quickly rely on them living beyond their means. What they didn’t realize right away was all that this honor would cost them.
Lady Bess, the first in her kind in the way she accumulated wealth and managed the properties left to her by her husbands, was dreaming of the wealth and favor that would come with performing such a task. She married her way up to the nobility and was proud of the way she orchestrated her life and was now able to make a place for her children. She learned how to keep books and it had become her passion. She took pride in knowing to the penny how much she was worth and what she had spent. As I got to know her, it became apparent that when things were happening beyond her control that she had her own inner mantra about who she now is and how efficient she is as a landlord. She is quite the Protestant, but when she’s under stress, all she needs are prayer beads to make this mantra into her own personal rosary.
For all their differences, Mary, Queen of Scots is much like Lady Bess. She, too, handles stress by telling herself over and over who she is and what her station means. When she is confident in what she is doing and the plans that are underway on the outside to free her and return her to her throne, her thoughts are fluid and she has a hard time containing her enthusiasm. There is no need to remind herself that she is a queen of the royal blood. She is prospering in that role. When she is not, or when she feels defeated, her thoughts of freedom and who she is become excessive and obsessive. It is then that she thinks of Bothwell. When things become dark enough, she admits to what he did. In her fear she reveals how vulnerable she is, which makes her no different from any other woman.
Philippa Gregory made a bold choice in choosing to tell Mary, Queen of Scots’ story of early imprisonment. Despite the lack of physical action, it paid off for me. I understood Mary and Bess both in their perceived triumphs and actual defeats. I felt their impatience, resentment, and the immense weight of their boredom. Whether it was intentional or not, Baron Burghley and Queen Elizabeth proved that all torture has to be physical to be effective. If I were to change one thing about this novel, I might have chosen a different third voice. Lord Shrewsberry’s last chapter didn’t work well for me. I would have chosen someone from outside the house. Thomas Howard or Queen Elizabeth would have added a third distinct layer to the story.
The Other Queen is a novel of internal drama. As Mary, Queen of Scots is prisoner from start to finish, and her jailers could not be rid of her. There was a constant battle between the Shrewberry’s and their other queen. When Lady Bess is up, Mary is down. When Mary is up, Lady Bess is down. Lord Shrewsberry was beaten and battered by the storm erupting between the two women. Still, this novel was not as compelling as The Other Boleyn Girl or The Boleyn Inheritance, but it kept my interest and my interest grew with the characters. I look forward to reading more about Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick.
Now that my reading of Gregory’s Tudor series is complete, I would rank them in the following order:
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