The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
I always enjoy Philippa Gregory’s historical novels on the women of the British monarchy. She focuses on the women that the historical record usually neglects, and I always feel like I’ve learned something after reading her books. Her narrators have distinctive voices, and are melodramatic or humorous as the situation and their personalities permit.
The focus of this novel is on Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned and eventually executed by Elizabeth I. Mary was Elizabeth’s second cousin, heir to the English throne and a Catholic. She was married three times, and the subject of The novel switches among three points of view: Queen Mary, Bess of Hardwicke, and her husband George, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Bess and George are asked by Queen Elizabeth to keep Queen Mary at their estate, and the expense nearly bankrupts them. Queen Mary keeps scheming, writing secret letters to supporters to try to muster a rebellion to return her to her throne, and she nearly succeeds.
The relationships of the three narrators are fraught with drama and tension. The conflict is presented as between a younger woman and an older one, with the man caught between them. Bess is a businesswoman, mercenary and practical, delighting in her houses and lands. George is a romantic, charmed by Mary’s beauty and spirit, but a bit of a patronizing snob. Mary is concerned only with regaining her freedom, and is willing to exploit George’s feelings to achieve her goals. The couple’s loyalties are split between the two queens, while their resources are exhausted by paying to host Mary’s court. Their marriage ultimately ends, as much as was possible at the time. It’s kind of a happy ending, or at least a relief, for Bess when she is finally free of her husband’s debts and she has full control of her own lands again. Bess isn’t an especially appealing character, thanks to her materialism and her constant harping on money, but in some ways she achieves many feminist goals through freeing herself from a bad marriage and establishing herself independent of her husband. She recognizes the marriages of the period for what they are, and works within the legal framework to make sure that she can provide for herself and her children. At the end of the book, she calls herself a new kind of woman, and I think that’s true. The Elizabethan Age was an important time for proto-feminism.
I was slightly troubled by the presentation of Queen Mary’s relationship with Bothwell, her third husband, who never appears in person in this novel because he is also imprisoned, far away, but who is a strong presence in Mary’s mind. She speaks of him admiringly, worshipfully, as the only man strong enough to help her return to her throne. At one point, Mary says he raped her, and at another she says she enticed him. Perhaps some of this ambiguity comes from the historical record itself, and the fact that Gregory is interpreting and inventing a fictional relationship inspired by mere fragments and rumors of a real one. As if that weren’t confusing enough, Mary describes their lovemaking this way:
“No,” I say as his weight comes down on me. It is what I always say to him. It is the word which means desire to me, to us. It is the word which means yes: “No.”
I honestly didn’t know what to make of this. I think that in real life, consent always needs to be crystal clear. The idea of a woman who gives mixed messages on whether or not she was raped in the past and whether or not she’s consenting to a present sexual encounter has been used too many times to excuse or dismiss rape charges. In fact, Mary herself gives a startlingly progressive speech about rape culture and how victims are blamed. Is it possible that a complex literary character may express her dysfunctional attitudes about sexuality without promoting rape culture in the world outside of the book? I don’t know. I think it’s potentially dangerous, and problematic, and worth talking about. But that’s all I’ve got so far. I’m stumped.