Book Review: The Winchester Goose by Judith Arnopp

This book took me completely by surprise. I’m still not sure what I expected when I first started reading, but it certainly wasn’t a tale that grippeThe Winchester Goosed me by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and clenched my heart with the other and refused to let go.

“Winchester Geese” was the collective name given to the prostitutes who worked in Southwark and Bankside in Medieval times, in an area or the liberty owned by the Bishop of Winchester. From these women and the places in which they lived, the bishop collected rents and hence a tidy earning. That a man of God made a living – or part of it – off women’s backs, turning a blind eye to their shocking conditions, illness, poverty, cruelty, and the enforced sexual slavery that some endured, and the brutality of their often brief lives and the lack of choice that led them to such a profession, while preaching against sin etc. was not lost on contemporaries or history. So, immediately, the title of this book intrigued me.

Set in Tudor times, during the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII, 1540, the book uses first person and, to commence, four different voices to tell a tale of love, lust, hope, marriage, desperation, loss and tragedy. The main protagonist is Winchester Goose, Joanie Toogood (great name) who, due to the death of her parents when young, gained responsibility for her two younger siblings turning to the oldest and only profession available to her as a single woman of a certain class. Big of heart, popular among locals and with oodles of common sense, Joanie is a delight. When she falls for the rather shady but young and dashing Francis Wareham, a gentleman who seems to stumble from bad choice to poorer ones, her life changes. But so does that of two other women from a completely different class who also encounter the dashing courtier: Evelyn Bourne and her sister Isabella.

Lovely young gentlewomen, they are brought to the Tudor court to join the maids serving Henry VIII’s new queen, Anna of Cleaves. Hoping their prospects for marriage will improve through exposure to the royal court and eligible bachelors and widowers, the young sisters could never have foreseen the way their lives were to be changed.

All four of the main characters, Joanie, Francis, Evelyn and Isabella are given voice in this novel and such different and compelling voices they have. The common denominator in their stories is Francis. As a reader, you think you see where these women’s relationships with handsome, swaggering Francis will lead, but nothing prepares us for the brutal and heart-wrenching reality.

Told in an uncompromising fashion, one that allows us to experience the lack of choice, the utter despair and injustice of women in certain positions during this time, the novel can make for bleak reading – only, despite the shocking events that unfold, it never falls into that dark trap, but allows hope and possibility to hover at the edges. Without sentimentality, it explores the heights and depths to which choices – good and bad – can lead, and how all it takes is one chance, one generous act of faith in fellow humans to bring about transformation.

Evocative and moving, the period is also brutally and wonderfully drawn. I really enjoyed the fact that the court and the large figures that people in it such as King Henry, Anna, Katherine and the courtiers, were mere backdrops to a passionate and searing tale of ordinary folk.

Readers of historical fiction, romance and just a damn fine book will love this. Looking forward to reading more of Judith Arnopp.

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Book Review: The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory

I havThe Virgin's Lover (The Tudor Court, #5)e to say, Philippa Gregory is such a reliable author. You always know that when you pick up one of her books, not only are you in for a good read, but one imbued with historical facts without overly didactic. So it is with the wonderfully titled, the oxymoronic, The Virgin’s Lover, essentially the tale of the relationship between Robert Dudley, the future Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth the First, the woman who would later be dubbed the “Virgin Queen.”

Set in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, when she was not only being pressured by her council and foreign powers to marry and thus secure an heir to the British throne, but was also the victim of plots to overthrow her and restore the Catholic faith (and a Catholic royal), it shows Elizabeth at her mercurial, cocky and overbearing best – at least on the surface. Confident in her youth, beauty and brains, she wields authority as though born to it, when in reality she was never intended to lead the country, let alone be a sole sovereign.

Gregory does not hesitate to expose Elizabeth’s awareness of this and thus her insecurities, and anyone raised on a diet of BBC miniseries of the Queen’s life or Cate Blanchett and other actors’ powerful portrayals (Helen Mirren’s is one of my favourites), might find reading of her indecision and constant need to reassure herself with her confidant Dudley, irksome and feel it rings false. Yet history indicates that the queen was notorious for changing her mind, seeking the advice of familiars and ignoring the counsel of those who might know best. Beset with nerves, prey to occasional bouts of hysteria, she presented a strong façade to the public. Unpredictable at best, difficult and demanding at worst, in Gregory’s interpretation, it seems no-one but Dudley could control or soothe her. Though, and this is something that drove me mad, Gregory has either read somewhere or decided to introduce in Elizabeth the habit of pushing her cuticles down as an indicator of a nervous disposition. There are far too many references to this – so much so, they detract from the story and jar whenever mentioned.

Gregory has also seen fit to take the rumours of a sexual liaison between the queen and Dudley to a logical conclusion and certainly, Dudley’s sexual power over Elizabeth does account for the authority he was able to throw about in her name and elsewhere.

Confident he would one day come to the throne, there was only one obstacle in Dudley’s way: his wife, Amy Robsart. An early marriage of convenience on his part and love on hers, the needy, clinging Amy who is abandoned for the queen, in Gregory’s book is finally given a voice.

Sometime plaintive, other times painful, it’s nonetheless fascinating to “hear” the thoughts and desires of Dudley’s wife, the “other woman” to Elizabeth, and be given an insight into her despair and the knowledge that she has lost not just her husband, but her love.  Forced to seek shelter from friends, a situation that became increasingly fraught as Dudley’s favour and chances at kingship grew, Amy cuts a pathetic and tragic figure. But, if you know the history you also know that there’s a sad and twisted sense in which she finally gets her revenge upon Dudley for his betryayal and Elizabeth for seeking love where it was already taken.

Gregory takes delicious liberties but without sacrificing veracity. A good read that certainly puts a strain on the idea of Elizabeth as a “Virgin Queen.”

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Book Review: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

I am a huge fan of Alison Weir’s non-fiction so turned with great interest to this, her second work of fiction, and was not disappointed. When the story opens, the future Queen Elizabeth I is only three years old. Tall, slender, with the red hair that marked her as a Tudor, she was already showing signs of the intellect and perspicacity for which she would become renown. In this novel, Weir chooses to focus on Elizabeth’s early years and adolescence against the backdrop of her father’s tempestuous marriages, other relationships and struggles with the church and his nobles. All the characters familiar from history appear only, this time, the reader sees them mainly through Elizabeth’s eyes, thus painting them in a new and often fascinating light.
Though a strong young woman, it’s made clear that luck played a huge role in not only Elizabeth’s survival against all odds, but also her ascension to the throne. The manoeuvring and play for power of other families and individuals in the constant jostle for the throne of England and the spiritual welfare of its people is mind-boggling and when viewed through young eyes, takes on sinister implications – what some of the nobles will do for favour, power and the promise of more. Ripe for exploitation, the royal children are simple pawns in a never-ending game and it’s not until they learn this (some never do), that they are able to begin to steer their destiny. Of great interest is the way the relationship between Mary, Elizabeth and Edward is depicted – closer and more loving than is generally thought, laced with regret and sadness, it is the heart and soul of the novel in many ways – they spring literally from the same seed and yet are more rivals than siblings. Their burgeoning awareness and deliberate ignorance of this fact is delicately explored. Another surprise in the novel is the notion of Elizabeth’s “virgin queen” status which is given, as historians of the era do too, a different and very powerful meaning. Headstrong Elizabeth is revealed to be a young woman with a big heart as well, one that is poised for breaking.

This may be fiction, but it keeps close to the facts as they’re known, offering wonderful insights and imaginings into the female mind, the endless machinations behind the throne of England and the woman who became one of the greatest monarchs in British history. A terrific read.

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