Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Other Queen by Phillipa Gregory

Phillipa Gregory's story of Mary Queen of Scot's imprisonment under the guardianship of George, Earl Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess of Hardwick starts well with the inner thoughts of the three protagonists. Mary, a devout Catholic, is a constant threat to her cousin Elizabeth I, who is not only a Protestant, but also somewhat peeved at Mary for claiming herself the Queen of England while married to the French dauphin.

Mary’s disastrous love life comes to a dramatic climax with a double murder and a reckless lover which forces her to flee from Scotland and into her cousin's hands. Elizabeth’s chief advisor, Cecil persuades her to keep Mary under guard with his faithful friend, Bess of Hardwick.

Bess is now in her fourth marriage, to the distinguished Earl of Shrewsbury. The pair take on the task, hoping it will advance their position with Queen Elizabeth, but neither take into account Mary’s persuasive and manipultaive nature, not to mention the vast cost of housing Mary and her large entourage. Both Bess and George establish their own close relationship with Mary which causes raised eyebrows amongst the court, jealousy between man and wife, not to mention accusations of collusion and treachery.

I am a fan of Phillipa Gregory's earlier books, even when she puts her own interpretation on historical events and writes them more as she imagines they might have been. However the three narrators made the characters difficult to engage with as they chopped about from one head to another. The story starts well by setting up the ambitions of the three main characters, but nothing much happens, and what action there is, tended to be repetitive, and dealt with abortive plots to put Mary on the throne of England - which mainly happened elsewhere - and which she invariably denied having any involvement. Not to menton Mary being shunted back and forth between Chatsworth which she loved, and Tutbury which she hated. Even I began dreading the inevitable order to pack her bags!

Bess’s constant complaints about money make her into a harridan, which is not my impression of the lady at all from other sources. George is weak and lacks insight in his blatant worship of Mary, while Mary spends a lot of time expounding her own charms – and her innocence of any wrongdoing.

Mary never seemed to appreciate the seriousness of her situation, why she was in prison in the first place and what she should do to get out of it. Her unshakeable belief that she would be restored to the throne in Scotland as well as England became irritating, as did her complaints about her unfair treatment. She maintains an aloof, ‘I’m queen’ attitude that reminded me of Miranda Richardson. Another odd aspect was Mary’s execution being written as a dream sequence, partly I suppose because the event is still fifteen years in the future.

Anyone interested in the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, but doesn’t mind the liberties taken with Bess’s character will enjoy this book. However as a fan of Bess of Hardwick and her triumph over personal trials, it wasn’t very compelling.

I normally cannot put a Phillipa Gregory down, but I’m afraid I only completed this book for the purposes of this review. Otherwise I would have given up before the end.
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