Philippa Gregory – "The Virgin’s Lover"

22 Sep

GENRE: Historical Fiction
PUBLISHED: HarperCollins, 2005

From the back blurb:
“In the autumn of 1558, church bells across England ring out the news – Elizabeth is queen. One woman hears them with dread. Amy Dudley, wife of Sir Robert, knows that with Elizabeth on the throne he will return to the glamorous Tudor court. Amy’s hopes that the ambitions of the Dudley family had died when Robert’s father was beheaded are ended. The triumphant peal of bells summons her husband once more to power – and to a passionate young queen.
Elizabeth has inherited a bankrupt and rebellious country. Her advisor William Cecil warns that she will only survive if she marries a strong prince, but the only man Elizabeth desires is her childhood friend.
Robert is sure that he can reclaim his destiny at Elizabeth’s side. And as queen and courtier fall in love, Dudley begins to contemplate the impossible – setting aside his loving wife to marry the young Elizabeth …”

The book starts with Amy Robsart’s view of Elizabeth becoming queen of England, turns to some flashbacks about Amy’s and her husband Robert’s life, and then picks up again with Elizabeth becoming queen. This time from Elizabeth’s point of view, using the same sentence as the first one in the book: “All the bells in Hertfordshire, all the bells in England were ringing for Elizabeth, …” (p.29).

Gregory likes to repeat expressions, mirror expressions of one character by another, or pick up expressions from one situation in another situation. For example, there is a scene where Elizabeth wants the only open shutter closed so that even the moon can’t see what she’s doing with Robert in bed (p.312). Right after that, there is a change of scene to Amy in her bed and, after seeing the moon through the only open shutter, she thinks about Robert: “Perhaps it will wake him too, and make him think of me.” (p.312). This device serves to juxtapose and compare different scenes and point of views.

Sometimes, it serves to connect different scenes, and that’s important, because The Virgin’s Lover is a “all-over-the-place” novel. Gregory jumps in her narration from one scene to another (indicated by empty space and a little sign between the lines), and with that from one character to another. In the example above, the part about Amy is only two paragraphs long before the story moves on to a conversation between Robert and Mary Sidney, his sister (p.313). The novel lacks a center, or a “main character”, which keeps it all together. I had to read over 100 pages to get into the novel, and I think this is mostly because of this structure. The other thing is that you know what will happen and it is therefore hard to become invested in the characters.

So how to judge this novel?

Philippa Gregory writes about the purpose of her novel The Virgin’s Lover in the “Author’s Notes” of the book: “I suggest that…” (p. 483). The purpose is to present a convincing solution to the mystery of Amy Robsart’s death. She can’t change much of the events happening before Amy’s death (they are known), if she wants to write a historical novel. With the characters, she has a bit more leeway. It’s easier to improvise here, because to what extent the characterizations correspond to the real people is a question nobody can answer for sure, whereas you can’t change actual events.

So she shows Amy as a simple woman, very much in love with her husband. She wants nothing more than to live with him in a house in the country. Amy’s uneducated, naive and a devout Catholic. Robert on the other hand is ambitious, very ambitious. He wants to restore the family name and rise to glory. Elizabeth is portrayed as an insecure, undecided, frightened queen, rather weak and very much dependent upon Robert (and Cecil). But there is one thing Elizabeth is sure about: she wants to stay queen (and that is one character trait easily reconciled with the general knowledge about the “real” Elizabeth I). These three characters set in motion a love triangle that ends with the death of Amy Robsart. Gregory’s characterisation of these three characters makes her answer to the question about Amy’s death believable.

Judged purely as a work of fiction, with no regard to historical accuracy, Philippa Gregory’s novel The Virgin’s Lover succeeds. If you don’t have too much problems reading about an unusual characterized Elizabeth I*, it’s not a bad novel to read. I even think it was the (maybe) slightly off characterization of Elizabeth that made this novel interesting after a slow start for me, because it was the only thing I didn’t expect / know.

* I read in one account (yes, the novel/characterisation made me check my history books) that Elizabeth I didn’t like to go to war or make decisions, so in this regard Gregory’s characterisation seems to be true.

Would I recommend this novel? Not sure, depends on the person.

Would I read this novel again? No.

Grade: 3 / 5


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