Of Royalty and Loyalties

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By Diana Gabaldon,
whose most recent novel is "Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade"
Wednesday, October 8, 2008


By Philippa Gregory

Touchstone. 438 pp. $25.95

Acynical observer might think the world could get along without another book about Mary Queen of Scots. The cynic would be missing a bet. Philippa Gregory's novel looks at Mary Stuart and her times from a fresh and engaging angle, while making an unusual point about history in general.

The book deals with a love triangle consisting of Mary Stuart and the earl and countess of Shrewsbury. Who? I hear you asking. George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess, were selected by Elizabeth Tudor to be hosts (a.k.a. jailers) to her cousin Mary when she was run out of Scotland and took refuge in England. Bess, the earl and Mary take turns explaining themselves, boasting, lamenting, plotting -- the book includes a truly staggering number of political plots -- each seeing events from a narrow perspective but succeeding collectively in providing a 360-degree view of their times, as well as themselves.

The earl is a nobleman in every sense of the word: honest, idealistic, protector of the helpless, loyal servant of his queen, the embodiment of honor and dismissive of such crass things as money. This attitude steams his wife, who boasts repeatedly of being a "self-made woman -- self-made, self-polished, and self-sold." Elizabeth Shrewsbury has bootstrapped her way out of poverty by a series of judicious marriages -- Shrewsbury is her fourth -- aided by an avaricious temperament and previous husbands who profited from the dissolution of the Catholic Church in England. Her table is adorned with abbots' silver dinner plates, and her treasure room is stuffed with the church's goodies.

This, she piously (and repeatedly) informs us, is incontrovertible evidence that God prefers Protestants. After all, He would not have rewarded them with all this worldly wealth unless He thought their views of the pope, the Bible and transubstantiation were correct. Her husband tells her she has no theology, but he doesn't complain about the health of her bottom line. Mary, by contrast, is both a Catholic and a spendthrift. After all, it isn't her money being lavished on gold embroidery, 30-course dinners and squadrons of lute players. A queen must be treated like a queen, after all.

Gregory shows all three people as entirely human, entirely sympathetic (since we see them by their own lights) and in increasing conflict with one another, as the honor of hosting a queen begins to drain the Shrewsburys' coffers. Bess is agitated and resentful. George, to his horror, finds both his heart and his honor compromised as he begins to fall in love with his enchantingly vulnerable prisoner.

Mary remains in (and on) the Shrewsburys' hands for years, constantly the focus of political plots. Bess becomes increasingly embittered as she sees her wealth drain away and her husband ensnared in Mary's web. George is devastated by what he sees as the fall of the England he knew, as Queen Elizabeth's wily counselor, Robert Cecil, cements her hold on her kingdom. In doing so, he destroys concepts of tradition, honor and justice that define Shrewsbury's conviction of what it means to be an Englishman while suborning Bess as a spy.

And Mary? She grows fat and ill in captivity but never stops plotting to regain her throne. Annoying as she is, we appreciate both the immense loneliness of her position and her courage in maintaining it. She seduces everyone because seduction is her only weapon, but she can't reciprocate the love she evokes.

Most treatments of Mary Queen of Scots deal as much with Elizabeth as with Mary. "The Other Queen" doesn't. Elizabeth is always there, but like a black star: unseen, though affecting the orbit of everything near her. She appears onstage only once and briefly, though the difference between her and Mary's interpretations of a queen's role forms an important subtext of the book.

One of the most admirable things about "The Other Queen" is the delicate way in which Gregory drops bits of historical allusion into a very personal story. We're never distracted by information, but there's enough of it to make the past both factually comprehensible and emotionally accessible. In the author's view as well as Bess Shrewsbury's, questions of religion and political allegiance always come down in the end to money. That's true, but fiction rarely focuses primarily on the economic basis of history; this novel is a refreshing exception.

Above all, the book is an examination of the nature of loyalty, as well: to a spouse, to a monarch, to a family or a family name, to a religion, to political ideals and especially to one's sense of self.

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