The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
Wow, was this ever a disappointment.
Like oh so many people, Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl” was my first foray into historical fiction. That book sparked an obsession, first of Tudor historical fiction, then of English history historical fiction, then just of historical fiction. Sure, Gregory took oh-so-many liberties with the story, but the book was so engaging!
Next came “The Queen’s Fool,” which disappointed me a bit because it was largely removed for the court, but I enjoyed it. Then “The Virgin’s Lover,” which was slightly annoying, as it made Queen Elizabeth look like such a weak, vascilating ninny. After that was “The Constant Princess,” which was ‘eh’ and “The Boleyn Inheritance,” which I actually really enjoyed.
After all that, I was looking forward to “The Other Queen” enough to break down and buy it in hardcover.
The only reason that wasn’t a mistake is so that I can advise you all to at least wait for the paperback, or to find it used. To be clear, the mistake wasn’t reading it per se (it certainly wasn’t that bad), but paying so much for it.
“The Other Queen” covers what is possibly the least dramatic portion of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. We come into the story after her life as the Queen of France, after she has married Darnley, after she has been raped by Bothwell, after the murders of David Rizzio and Darnley, after she was forced to abdicate her throne and tried to win it back. “The Other Queen” begins with Mary fairly safely in England, and ends well before the dramatic Babington Plot which led directly to her execution. Yes, all of Mary’s life was fairly dramatic, she is still plotting to be free, still seducing men to her cause. Sure, the plot to marry Thomas Howard and be returned to her throne in Scotland is exciting, as is Mary’s desire to succeed her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, on the throne of England, even by force.
The problem is, Gregory doesn’t make it that exciting.
Part of the problem is her use of three narrators to tell the story. Mary, Queen of Scots is given an equal voice with George Talbot and his wife Bess of Hardwick, her jailers. Because the story moves so often between such different viewpoints, I never cared a whit for any of the actors in the story. Mary comes off as conniving yet flat, George as a simpering, love-struck idiot, and Bess – who was perhaps meant to be the most sympathetic – as simply not that interesting. Incidentally, I’m starting to think that Gregory really has issues with Queen Elizabeth I, because she again was depicted as someone who could be swayed by the winds, a Queen without a mind of her own.
A similar structure worked much better in “The Boleyn Inheritance.” I think the reason it worked there was that the characters were more complementary and not so often at odds with one another. In addition, if I remember correctly, the chapters for each of those women were longer, so they had more time to build up their voice and make a case for their point of view.
If you just want to complete the set, as it were, read “The Other Queen” (but from the library, a used bookstore, or when it is in paperback). If your interest in this book stems from a desire to read historical fiction about Mary, Queen of Scots I would recommend “The Captive Queen of Scots” or “Royal Road to Fortheringhay,” both by Jean Plaidy, each of which focuses on a slightly different part of her life (although they overlap and are NOT a series). I know that Margaret George also has a book, “Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles.” I like her work, but haven’t read that book in particular, so I cannot speak to how good it is.