Hardback, 442 pages.
This was my final book read in January 2009. It took quite a few months for me to reach the front of the reservation list at the library. This review was originally written for 50bookchallenge but thought it appropriate to post here also given this community is dedicated to Philippa Gregory's works.
The novel is written from three perspectives, alternating between them chapter by chapter. These are Mary Queen of Scots and her assigned keepers George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, who is more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick. The Talbots were charged by Elizabeth with the responsibility of housing Mary and her entourage in the north of England for the first 9 years of her 16-year captivity. In the early years it seemed very likely that Mary would be returned to Scotland and while not free to leave the custody of the Talbots she was treated as an honoured guest. Given the level of luxury that Mary expected and the size of her personal household this duty to their queen cost the Talbots a fortune as they waited in vain for Elizabeth to compensate them for the expenses.
Restricting the story to these three narrators and the events of 1568-72 provides quite a tight focus to the novel. Due to this, Queen Elizabeth I is hardly present even though her influence is felt throughout. Of the three 'voices' I felt Mary and Bess' came over as the strongest. Bess of Hardwick is a woman whom I've admired since an outing to the magnificent house she built, Hardwick Hall, was organised as part of a course I was taking on the Renaissance. In the novel Bess' attitudes as a self-made woman come across as very different to those of George Talbot, her fourth husband, whose family had served the English Crown since 1066 as well as to those of Mary, whose Catholic faith and ideas about sovereignty contrast with Bess' pragmatic Protestantism.
I feel a little sorry for Gregory as she has been often criticised for the historical inaccuracies and soap opera style of The Other Boleyn Girl and then when she adopts a different approach and produces a work with a more serious tone and greater historical accuracy she is criticised because it isn't as fun or fast paced as earlier books. Personally I enjoyed it, as much for this change in style as for the material covered. I felt it looked beneath the glamour of this 'doomed queen' to count the cost in lives and reputations caused by Mary's constant plotting. In her Author's Note Gregory mentioned two recent biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick that had been a great source of inspiration to her. I was impressed enough by this work of historical fiction to make sure that both are on my ever-expanding list of books to be read.
Philippa Gregory on The Other Queen.