The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory was published in 2008 and is 433 pages. It is the story of Queen Elizabeth’s rebelious cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, her imprisonment at the homes of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her execution. The story is told from three points of view: Mary’s, the Earl’s (George), and George’s wife, Bess of Hardwick. The latter is the primary narrator with the strongest voice, and her judgements of her husband and the ill-fated queen serve as a chorus throughout the novel.
We come to learn that Bess is as self-made a woman as possible for the time. She had humble beginnings as the poor daughter of a widow, and used her intelligence and beauty to marry better and better with the passing of each husband. She was at her peak in her marriage to the Earl, but also met her ruin when Queen Elizabeth decided that she and her husband should take Mary Stuart into their household during her imprisonment. As the years passed, keeping Mary as a queen–in spite of the fact that she was a prisoner–bankrupted her household and ruined her marriage. It seems that Mary was known for her great beauty and charm, and was able to stir the heart of the Earl.
I love all Philippa Gregory novels, though this wasn’t my favorite. There was a great deal of exposition and not a lot of scene. Gregory’s novels are usually more story than history, but this was the opposite. It almost had the feel of a history book–which I like very much–but was not expecting.
Gregory is an expert on her subject and the amount of research she does for her historical fiction is wide and thorough. I did feel that just as the story was getting dramatic, Gregory pulled back and cut off the ending of the book. I would have like more of the trial of Mary, her execution, and the aftermath of it, but I guess that would have added another couple of hundred pages to an already lengthy novel.
What never ceases to amaze me is that, in spite of knowing the outcome of these histories, Philippa Gregory is gifted enough to instill hope of nonviolent outcomes in her readers. It also amazes me that these stories reflect true events. It can be concluded that sixteenth century Europe was not a safe place to live for nobility or peasantry.