Saturday, August 20, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

The Virgin's Lover by Phillipa Gregory
ISBN: 978-0-7432-6926-1


In the autumn of 1558, church bells across England ring out the joyous news that Elizabeth I is the new queen.  One woman hears the tidings with utter dread.  She is Amy Dudley, wife of Sir Robert, and she knows that Elizabeth's ambitious leap to the throne will draw her husband back to the center of the glamorous Tudor court, where he was born to be.

Elizabeth's excited triumph is short-lived.  She has inherited a bankrupt country where treason is rampant and foreign war a certainty.  Her faithful advisor William Cecil warns her that she will survive only if she marries a strong prince to govern the rebellious country, but the one man Elizabeth desires is her childhood friend, the ambitious Robert Dudley.  As the young couple falls in love, a question hangs in the air: can he really set aside his wife and marry the queen?  When Amy is found dead Elizabeth and Dudley are suddenly plunged into a struggle for survival.


My Thoughts:

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a review of The Other Boleyn Girl and while I had some issues with that book I still rather enjoyed it.  Based on Wren's review of The Constant Princess I picked that up and actually loved it.  So it is with a heavy heart that I come here to report that The Virgin's Lover left me disappointed.  Some of this feeling stems back to my feminist thoughts about The Other Boleyn Girl and some of it comes from some really jarring writing.

The court intrigue that charmed me earlier was absent from this book and the characters simply weren't as engaging.  For the most part, the people portrayed irritated me and I do so hate to be irritated (I am not amused).  It's not that they were unlikeable, I can deal with unlikeable protagonists, it's that I felt they were all somehow demeaned by the approach the novel took.  I never got a sense that the love between Dudley and Elizabeth was overwhelming for them both.  All I could see is that he was ambitious and she was weak.  And he uses her frailty to his advantage at every turn, not actions you'd expect from a man who supposedly loves her beyond reason.  The vulnerability and instability of Elizabeth grated on me.  To be honest, I get the impression that Gregory is somehow anti-Boleyn.  Her portrayals of Anne and Elizabeth show them to be petty and weak, dependent on the men around them.  They're portrayed as being villains for their coquetry, education and intelligence (the last is downplayed, but it's there), while characters like Mary Boleyn and Amy Dudley are set on some sort of pedestal of womanly virtue for the way they bear the great injustices inflicted on them by men and the shrewish women that supplant them.  Unsurprisingly, they are naive, relatively uneducated and not terribly bright.

Let me get back on my feminist soap box for a moment here and spout some personal opinion about the history of the world.  It's a sad fact that while there are countless great kings and scholars and poets, there are few great queens, female scholars and women writers (though this number at least seems to be increasing as we pry away the manly pseudonyms of female writers).  In the last couple of decades scholarship has focused more on including women in the history books, for which I'm grateful, but the fact remains, there were few great queens, because often women were not allowed to inherit a throne.  So why anyone would want to sling fictional mud at one of those few women is hard for me to fathom.

To be honest, I don't care if in reality Elizabeth I was a petulant young woman who couldn't make a decision on her own to save her life, wracked with anxieties and swinging from one spectrum of extreme emotion to its opposite in a matter of minutes.  It's fiction for a reason and why can't we celebrate her achievements in that fiction (and sticking to the "truth" isn't necessarily a priority in these historical novels)?  Casting her as an adulterous shrew under the power of Dudley made me gnash my teeth.  If anyone should be vilified in this book it's Dudley, and while there is some indication that he's not such a nice guy, it's perhaps not overt enough.  Surely, the way he treats Amy is shameful and I despised him for it, but the fact that Elizabeth never sees through him and his lies bothered me.  She only begins to assert her will when he threatens her position, not because he's using her, or because he's married and bringing a great scandal on her.

Right, enough with the feminist griping for a moment.  Let me complain about something else.  Every so often, and always in the midst of dialogue, there would be a jarring modern-sounding colloquialism that tore me out of the moment.  Off the top of my head someone said they'd "bring the stuff" or some such thing, and someone once went to "check [something] out."  Little phrases that pulled me into the present.  I'm no linguist so, hey, who knows, maybe they used these terms back in Elizabethan England, all I know is that I found them to ruin the flow of the conversations.

I'm trying to think of a redeeming feature so it's not just negatives in here and while I was irritated and forced to suspend my disbelief for sloppy dialogue, I did still turn pages.  I never thought "Oh this is so dreadful I have to stop reading it," no, I wanted to see how it would all turn out.  Ultimately, I was hoping to see some of the characters redeem themselves.  Elizabeth seemed to at least grow a bit of a backbone by the end, so I guess that was my reward for sticking with it - barely a reward at all.

I really wanted to have a fun romp with this novel and it just didn't work out.  I think that unless Wren recommends me another one of Gregory's books as being palatable I might stay away from them for a good long while, possibly forever.  Of course, this means that I'll have to find some other, equally trashy replacement for those times when I just need to read fluffy nonsense.  I fear my options are definitely running out - I've given up on paranormal romance (more or less) and now I might be turning my back in historical fiction/romance.  What other kind of fluff is left?  I don't like mysteries.  I won't read a straight-up-romance.  What's a girl to do?  Westerns?  Video game tie-ins?  Oh woe is me!

No comments:

Post a Comment