The Other Queen tells the well-known story of Mary, Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth I. Gregory’s version focuses on the first years of Mary’s long imprisonment in England, and her relationship with her reluctant jailers, George, Earl of Shrewsbury and his strong-willed wife, Bess of Hardwick.
The novel alternates points of view between Mary, Bess, and George, exploring the tensions in the Shrewsbury marriage, George’s growing attraction to the young queen, and Mary’s towering and incredible arrogance and conviction of her own absolute right to rule.
In fact, one of the false notes in this novel is that the characters often seem to be far too aware of their own motives, too transparent, as when Bess frequently and laboriously explains how her acquisitive nature and determination to advance in society is directly linked to her Protestant faith. If I had one criticism of the novel, it was that the characterization could have used a little more subtlety in places.
Despite this, I found plenty to enjoy in this novel. The story was tightly written, the atmosphere well-drawn, and even though I knew how it would all inevitably end, the pages kept turning. It’s not a tour de force on the level of Margaret George’s Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, which I think is the definitive Mary Queen of Scots novel, but it was a very enjoyable read nonetheless, with the perspective of Bess of Hardwick giving a particularly interesting angle to a well-known story.