As Phillipa Gregory appears at the 2012 Hay Book Festival this weekend, Sue Robinson recalls her 2008 novel focusing on the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots.
I have read three other novels by Philipa Gregory. The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen’s Fool were fantastic – but the third, Wideacre, I found disappointing.
So I approached The Other Queen wondering which group this book would fall in with. It’s landed in the middle.
Tragic and lonely
I’ve always been a bit confused about Mary Queen of Scots, the subject of this novel. Where and why did it all go wrong for her?
She was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin; men fell at her feet; she had a son she loved; she owned land, castles and a casket overflowing with jewels.
Yet she strikes a tragic and lonely figure, who ended up imprisoned for almost 20 years and executed at the age of 45. I had hoped that this book would educate me, and in Philippa Gregory style, also entertain me.
So it was a disappointment to find that The Other Queen only covers in detail only a four-year period of Mary’s life, while she was held captive in England on the instructions of Elizabeth I.
During that time she was and guarded by the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury - known more familiarly as Bess of Hardwick and her husband George Talbot.
The narration of the story alternates among the three main characters, Bess, George and Mary.
There is enough mention of past events for the reader to get a good idea of Mary’s previous life and to work out how she arrived in her current predicament.
You also learn a lot about Bess and how she achieved her position; in fact this novel is probably as much about Bess as Mary.
Plots, intrigue and deceit
The book starts with these three characters optimistically thinking that their time together will be short-lived and to their own advantage.
Mary believes that she will soon be released and back in Scotland with yet another husband (as if she hadn’t already learned her lesson after three marriages).
George thinks that by serving his Queen Elizabeth loyally and following her commands he will gain honour in her eyes and at court.
Bess, whose mercenary nature is central to the story, anticipates more money in her coffers – and possibly even more land and homes to her name.
They are all proven wrong.
The four-year period spanned in the book is packed with plots and intrigue. Secret messages abound, hidden everywhere. Each of the three main characters are deceiving one another.
George is keeping quiet about his true feelings for Mary.
Bess is pretending to befriend Mary whilst spying on her for Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor.
And Mary is deceiving everyone by permanently trying to escape.
Implausible but entertaining
Much is made of moving Mary around the country to confound and confuse her supporters. Each time they move, Bess has to reconfigure a new court and home at even more expense.
The whole experience takes it’s toll on Bess and George’s marriage, and almost bankrupts them as well. Bess takes actions to protect what is left of her properties: she is clearly more fond of her fortune than she is of her husband.
Sadly, we know how Mary’s life will end – though I was disappointed by the way this was dealt with in the book.
Implausibly, George anticipates that things are going badly and foresees Mary’s execution in a dream. At this point you feel that the author has had enough of these characters and wants to wind the book up quickly.
I do know more about the conspiracies and plots that Mary was involved in, and the book does portray her in a different light from the honourable and wronged character that I had always imagined her to be.
So maybe a three-star book. It’s flawed, but I did find it both entertaining and educational.