Philippa Gregory was chosen as my real-life book club’s monthly author for October. The idea was that we would each choose one of her books which appealed to us (and there are rather a lot to pick from!) and then discuss it. I have read three of her novels in the past, all of which I liked – The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance. I was musing over which to purchase for our discussion, when my Mum discovered that she had two of Gregory’s novels in her to-read pile. She decided upon reading Changeling herself (merely because it was shorter), and so I began The Other Queen.
As with the majority of Gregory’s novels, The Other Queen is rather a long book, and the copy which I read comes in at just under 450 pages. It tells the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, who finds herself imprisoned as the ‘enforced guest’ of George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his new wife, Bess of Hardwick. The story of Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth’s, is also woven in. Bess, who believes that she is a ‘self-made woman – self-made, self-polished, self-sold – and proud of it’, agrees to hide the ‘foolish young woman’ in hope that she will receive ‘honours and riches’ in return.
The Other Queen begins in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire in 1568. The first person perspectives of the three protagonists – Mary, George and Bess – have been used throughout. All of the narrative voices did sound a little similar – George’s even appearing overly feminine in places – and whilst it did not detract from the story, it was annoying to have to flick back to each chapter’s beginning to see who was speaking because the turns of phrase and such used were not distinctive enough to work it out otherwise.
The historical scene of Britain’s relations with other countries was set out well throughout the novel, but I had hoped there would be more information about social and historical events of the time. The use of duplicity is perhaps the novel’s biggest strength, particularly with regard to the relationship between trusting George and scheming Bess.
The characters are not likeable by any means. Bess is selfish, spoilt, self-centered and callous; George is loyal and trusting but ultimately a bit wet; and Mary is incredibly full of herself, but I expect that someone in her uncertain position would have been.
I feel that two, or even one, narrative perspective would have worked far better than three. The same details were regurgitated by different characters in much the same way, and each of the narratives – Bess’ particularly – were rather repetitive. As with the other novels of Gregory’s which I’ve read, there was a definite lull for me towards the middle of The Other Queen, but it did pick up after a while.
To conclude, the historical period here is fascinating, and I enjoyed the story on the whole, but I did have issues with the way in which it was told and the characters whose voices were used. Regardless, I will be reading more of Gregory’s work in the future, as her other historical novels do look most interesting.