The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

A Tudor tale of power and sibling rivalry

When it comes to the stuff of historical romance, the reign of Bloody Mary is not ideal bodice-ripping territory. For one thing, the ladies at the Tudor court preferred stiff stomachers over beribbonned corsets; for another, women were still apt to lose their heads over politically incorrect liaisons, playful or otherwise.

Philippa Gregory's first Tudor novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, examined the turbulent sexual politics of Henry VIII's reign. Here she turns to the later Tudors with a story of sibling rivalry and dysfunctional passion in the courts of the regal half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. According to Gregory, the princesses were so shaped by their father's marital dramas that neither would enjoy a straightforward relationship with any suitor or, indeed, with each other. Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, supplanted Mary's, the devout Katherine of Aragon, who was banished to end her days in a series of dismal ruins. Boleyn's fate on the block taught an impressionable Elizabeth that keeping her virginity was akin to keeping her head. Mary's curse was to be a mummy's girl, Elizabeth to be daddy's.

As so often in contemporary historical fiction - not to mention tabloid journalism - the reader's witness to events at court is a royal servant. In this case, it is the female Fool, a young woman called Hannah Green. A Jew on the run from the Inquisition, she is adopted by Robert Dudley and the magician John Dee (who identifies her as a seer). Dressed in men's clothing, "Mistress Boy" (one of Gregory's few lapses into Blackadder-speak) moves easily between Hampton Court, Woodstock and the Tower, spying on Mary for Elizabeth, and on Elizabeth for Dudley.

As in her novels about the father-and-son-gardening team the Tradescants, Gregory drip-feeds political and social detail into the drama with minimal fuss. The Queen's Fool is at pains to recast Mary, remembered by history as a burner of bishops, as a saintly and courageous woman, more dogged by ill health and ill luck than a desire to avenge her mother and the Catholic faith.

Disappointed in love (Philip II abandons her) and in child-bearing (she lives through two phantom pregnancies), Mary ends her days coughing up bile in an over-heated confinement chamber. Elizabeth, in contrast, remains the flame-haired Protestant of popular myth, flirting mercilessly with Dudley (and her brother-in-law, Philip of Spain), all the time keeping her eye on the main prize: the throne of England.

The closest we get to bodice-ripping is the love life of "Mistress Boy". Betrothed to one of her "own people", a young doctor called Daniel, she has to get over a schoolgirl crush on "dark-eyed" Dudley before exchanging her riding boots for heels. More high politics than high romance, this unpretentious recreation of the sombre era between Henry VIII's death and Elizabeth's accession burns with passions with which Freud - let alone the Church - would have a field day.

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