The Virgin’s Lover is the third in a series of books about the Tudor monarchs. It follows on from the success of Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl detailing the relationship between Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. This novel deals Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen and her ‘lover’ Robert Dudley. Breaking away from the classroom history lesson, Gregory delivers a story filled with real characters and a vivid insight into 16th century politics.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Romance/Politics
The year is 1558 and twenty-five year old Elizabeth I has been crowned Queen of England. For her, this is the fruit of years of uncertainty and neglect and her moment to finally rise to glory. For her followers it is their chance to redeem themselves after the persecution of the old queen. Among them is Robert Dudley, son of a disgraced courtier. Dudley is handsome, captivating, sexually alluring to the young Queen…and married.
In the countryside, Dudley’s wife Amy awaits him with all the love and adoration of a newly married bride. She desires above all a quiet country life with him as her constant companion. Far from returning her love, Dudley soon begins to see her as a nuisance and burden. As his intimacy with the Queen grows, he begins to dream about the ultimate prize – being the husband of Elizabeth and King of England.
Everyone learns about Elizabeth I at school, but what we don’t learn is the person behind the name. Philippa Gregory brings the queen to life, and brings a whole host of interesting characters along with her. The Virgin’s Lover is definitely not a history book, although the main characters are all real. It is a re-imagining of a time long past, building a rich background to fit the facts.
The characterization throughout is splendid – Gregory shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of all her players. Elizabeth is a complicated mix of naivety, ruthlessness, youth and political animal. She is realistically shown as being torn between her love for an unsuitable man, and her destiny to be a powerful Queen. By far, she is the most fascinating character in the book. Her rival Amy Dudley comes in a poor second. Although the loving yet betrayed wife should get some automatic sympathy, Amy becomes more irritating as the story progresses. This is partly due to her constant bewailing and partly because the reader wishes she would eventually punch her unfaithful husband in the face.
The Virgin’s Lover has a great political edge to it. The time spent on Amy’s perspective can feel dragged on due to the lack of action. However, the action occurring back at court is so fraught with sexual and political tension that the reader is compelled to keep reading on. This book is especially interesting when you consider that Elizabethan England was still very much a man’s world, and the new queen was constantly threatened by opposing political factions. At the centre of the story is the question of her marriage – who will be her consort and the ‘real’ ruler of England?
Although much more can be said about this book, the real point of the review is to rank its readability. I would say this is a must-read if you already enjoy politics and/or history. Be warned though, this is not a textbook (there are multiple historical inaccuracies that the author has ignored in order to create a more interesting story). If not, this may not be the book for you. It does have a crime/suspense element to it, but I feel that some people may find it daunting and arduous to complete. And if you enjoy this one – check out the rest of the Tudor series at http://www.philippagregory.com/work/tudor/