What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Books with Buzz: "Lady of the Rivers" by Philippa Gregory

At some point in the next week or two, you'll walk into your bookstore and find massive displays clustered around the entrance and in the fiction section, jammed with glossy copies of The Lady of the Rivers, the third and final part of a trilogy of novels written by Philippa Gregory and based on the lives of key female players in the 15th century English civil war today known as the War of the Roses and then often referred to as The Cousins' War. I urge you: just walk on by, resist temptation, and save your money.

Unlike some other historical fiction afficionados, I am not a member of the Philippa Gregory anti-fan club. I enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl (though the film version took horrible liberties with both history and the text) because it gave the reader a different view of the court of Henry VIII and womens' lives at the time, through the eyes of someone who became a bit player, Anne Boleyn's sister. It didn't matter to me that Gregory may or may not have muddled up the birth order of the Boleyn siblings or their ages: it was hardly relevant to the story she was telling, and we simply don't have access to the facts. Most of the elements of the book that purists quibble over, to my mind fall into the grey areas of history -- the things that we can never know, and that novelists are free to interpret as they will, within the bounds of plausibility. A case in point: we don't know the fate of the Princes in the Tower. That gives novelists carte blanche to propose their own theories, within the bounds of probability and what readers find convincing.

Until this trilogy, my view of Gregory was that some of her books were more convincing or better written than others, and that on balance her influence was good, as she was reviving interest in a genre I've enjoyed since I was a child. Then came The White Queen. The first issue I had was all the hype; let's face it, Gregory is not Hilary Mantel. Which is fine, but as a reader, I don't want publicists trying to persuade me she is a literary novelist or a historian. That brings me to my second gripe, Gregory's growing interest in being accepted as a historian who happens to write novels, rather than a novelist.  (In her publicity materials, she is now referred to as Dr. Gregory and a historian, although her doctorate is in English literature, a fact not mentioned.)  That would matter less to me, too, if Gregory weren't in love with her own deathless prose. But it took me three tries to get through The White Queen  and The Lady of The Rivers is downright painful to read and even tedious. Plodding my way through the electronic galleys, I kept hoping for improvement, but found none. What sprang into my mind instead was a quip I read some years ago -- a performance review for a military officer: "His men (her readers) would follow him (her) anywhere, if only out of morbid curiosity."

So, what's the problem with The Lady of the Rivers, which is based on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who became aunt-by-marriage to a young Henry VI only to change allegiances when her daughter captured the eye and the heart of the young Edward IV decades later? It's not Gregory's view of history. I admit that having Jacquetta meet Joan of Arc, have extensive conversations with her, etc. in the early pages of the book, sent my eyebrows up into my hairline, but it was historically possible, if not plausible, and Gregory had to find a way to spice up a book that, let's face it, is about a woman who was better known for who she married, who she served (Margaret of Anjou) and what her many, many children by her second husband got up to. The only really interesting things about Jacquetta were the fact that she broke with tradition and married her late husband's squire for love -- unthinkable, when she was royal by marriage -- and later that she was accused of witchcraft, which Gregory works to death in this novel. (Indeed, Gregory is so enamored of the idea of "wise women" that she ignores evidence that doesn't support her theories.)

My apologies for the length of this screed, although in my own defense, it's proportional to the amount of marketing hype that will surround the novel when it's published... Still, I don't want to write an essay-length critique of Gregory's approach to historical fiction, so I'll quickly summarize all the reasons not to waste $15 plus on this book.
  1. The plausibility issue. When Jacquetta is married off at 17 to the English duke of Bedford, the ruler of much of France (the territory his late brother, Henry V, conquered after Agincourt), she is oddly uninformed about the facts of life.  Even more oddly, John of Bedford (who was childless and presumably wanted a son) decides to leave her a virgin so that she can help him in his quest to discover the philosopher's stone... *roll eyes*
  2. Heavy handed imagery. Jacquetta's ancestress is descended from Melusine, a kind of water witch, and Gregory reminds you directly or indirectly of this every third page or so. (Gregory even attributes Woodville's title, Earl Rivers, to this link...) I felt as if I was drowning in watery images, some of which were there simply because the author seemed intent on pummeling the reader with it. For instance, “I fall asleep in his arms like a mermaid diving into dark water”.
  3. The use of the present tense, which is just a subset of point #5, below. Why?? Jacquetta is obviously looking back over her life -- there are several points that indicate this. 
  4. She chickens out on making the link between this novel and The White Queen, which focuses on her daughter, Elizabeth, and portrays Jacquetta as a Yorkist supporter when in this novel, she's a die-hard Lancastrian, watching battles, taking refuge from marauding Yorkists with her queen, etc. Gregory never shows Jacquetta as questioning those loyalties, or thinking about who might make the better monarch for the country, or anything that might make her later switch of loyalties more convincing. Nor does she mourn for the Lancastrian cause when her husband rides home and announces he has switched sides. In a 400-plus page book told in the first person singular, that's a remarkable ommission.
  5. The writing. Even if everything else had been wonderful, this would have been enough to destroy much of my pleasure in the book. It's repetitive and ponderous, in the extreme. For example: “Thank God I am home,” he says with tears in his eyes. “Thank God for bringing me home, safe home, to this my home and my wife and my children.” And a few sentences later, we have home, home, home, yet again. Argh.
This is rather disappointing, because in many ways, I am Gregory's target reader. I'm open to reading a novel that takes a few liberties around known historical facts, and I'm not crazy about books that simply dress up events with dialog to turn them into novels. I want to read historical fiction that does more than simply regurgitate the facts and love books that use fiction to shed new light on particular historical characters or events. One of my favorite historical novels of recent years is The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan, which offers even more provocative theories about some of the same characters Gregory has written about; another is A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin, which is exceptionally well-written but crosses more boundaries. In neither case did that matter; both novels were so convincing and compelling that I simply couldn't put them down. And I've enjoyed several of Gregory's previous novels, including The Other Queen, which many Gregory fans didn't like, because I think she did an excellent job of showing how the old England of the aristocracy and the new England of self-made men and women clashed under the rule of Elizabeth I.

But this book... Well, let's just say I'm glad I read it as an electronic galley and that it will vanish on publication day, because I can't imagine ever wanting to re-read it, even as the literary equivalent of cotton candy. I'm sure it will sell, but I'd suggest getting it from a library before you waste your money on what was to me a 1.5 star book. (I did manage to finish it, after all...) I promise to be back with some good historical fiction suggestions over the weekend that might be a better way to spend the $$ you might otherwise invest in this novel...


  1. I quite like Gregory's Tudor series, I don't see them as historically accurate and just enjoy the ride, so to speak.

    I listened to The White Queen on audio when it first came out and thought it was average. I didn't like all the Melusine stuff and consequently haven't read the rest of the series.

    I didn't realise Gregory wanted to be seen as so academic, that is a bit off putting. Her books are great for what they are, enjoyable escapist fluff. And there's nothing wrong with that!

    Also - I really didn't like Mantel's Wolf Hall. That book was the definition of dry.

  2. I did like Wolf Hall, but it was a different kind of book entirely, and not intended for the average HF nut. I tend to like Mantel's novels, though, including her book about the French Revolution.

    Sam, you might try "The Red Queen". It's free of watery imagery, and Margaret Beaufort is a genuinely interesting character, although there are the same kinds of annoying tics, like repeating the same phrases over and over and over again (think Beaufort family instead of Boleyn girl...)

  3. I cannot wait to read this--I read the other 2 in this trilogy and our book club was wondering who the 3rd woman would be!

    Marlene Detierro (Fishing Gold Beach Oregon)

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