The Virgin’s Lover

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The first time I saw Philippa Gregory’s books, I was amused that the cover artwork followed the Chick Lit standard of clipping off the covergirl’s head (sample gallery here, in case you’ve never noticed the trend), even though these were, presumably, a bit weightier than the rest of the genre, what with the history and all. I’ve now read the book, and am considerably less amused to find the writing on the light end of the Chick Lit standard scale.

It started off well enough, setting up the contrasts between Elizabeth I and Lady Amy Dudley, fatal rivals for the love of Lord Robert Dudley. In the early going, it did a nice job of laying out the political landscape and making clear challenges facing the young queen, the struggle she faced to reach the throne, and giving interesting hints to the powerful monarch she would become. At her accession at 25, her throne and her very life depended on her marrying quickly and getting an heir; we know from history that she did neither, and yet ruled long and gloriously. This was a magnificent woman who faced down empires to retain her independence and power.

Too bad that in the latter half of the book, she becomes a simpering, nail-biting idiot who can’t say no to the domineering lover who seeks to usurp the kingship from her. Amy Dudley, a doormat of a female, does a better job standing her ground against Robert Dudley’s relentless ambitions than does Gloriana. The mighty queen, unwilling to share power and unable to refuse Dudley anything, whines and moans to her most trusted councillor, and he finally does something about the Dudley problem–after several times feeding Elizabeth her most famous “girl power” phrase–you know the one, about having the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king? Yeah, Gregory gives that to William Cecil, later, presumably, to be cribbed by an Elizabeth dependent on the men around her for everything, right down to her self-image.

Were this an entirely fictional work, the weak female characterizations would be annoying enough; involving historical women who lived and suffered, triumphed or failed bitterly, is particularly repellent character assassination. Gregory has slain Amy Dudley again, and Elizabeth with her; well, I guess that’s one way to be certain it was murder.

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9 Responses to The Virgin’s Lover

  1. Corvus says:

    I am very, very tired of the weak and simpering portrayal of women in media. Particularly women that are set up as strong characters, but wind up as shallow, vaguely misogynistic, caricatures.

  2. kaizerin says:

    I quite agree. And do we not have enough weak, undermined, dependent women in fiction, that we have to pull down strong women who actually lived to make more?

  3. Corvus says:

    It’s a creepy rewriting of history to suit… who? I’m guessing there must be some sort of audience for this. Are there women who feel they’re supposed to be strong, but really just want to be week and fluttery? I know there were in bits of the south I’ve lived in, where the messages are consistently undermining all across the board.

    Have you read/seen The Other Boleyn Girl? That’s Ms. PG as well and I am under the impression that it suffers from the same sort of high-handed historic slap-dashery.

  4. CountessZ says:

    Ugh. That sounds utterly atrocious. I can’t even imagine what you have to believe about yourself and about women in general to create something like that.

    To answer your question, Corvus. Yes. There is a rather large audience of women out there who indulge in this type of fantasy. I think it’s because they don’t really understand the price they are paying. And also because the vast majority of the messages they have received since childhood have been about seeking an understanding or sense of yourself through external resources and validation. If other people tell you that you are ok, then you are. This version of “history” makes more sense to them. So very sad.

    The people who read and love PGs books are precisely the same people who need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. They need to understand where this type of thinking can get you…

  5. kaizerin says:

    I was interested in The Other Boleyn Girl, until I read this book. I definitely won’t read the book now, and while hyperbolically, I’d pay good money to watch Scarlett and Natalie prance about in corsets for two hours (yummy!), realistically, I’ll be happier if I wait for it to hit cable. I don’t want to send even minute residual $$ Gregory’s way. (Ask me how delighted I am that I bought V.L. for a quarter at a library sale. G’won, ask me!)

    I’ve been thinking about who this kind of thing appeals to, and I’ve got an answer: Bush voters. No, wait, hear me out! I think a book that treats one of the greatest queens in human history as a simpering Chick Lit heroine succeeds on the “vote for the guy you’d like to have a beer with” principle. We want our heroes to be relatable, and it’s just too darned hard to try to live up to Gloriana–really, how often does one get a shot at an Armada? We are nothing like the queen, so we must make the queen something like ourselves. Ditto the tendency to vote for the guy (still) who doesn’t make you feel so bad about your ill-educated, under-achieving little life. We think that Americans value independence and achievement, but we only like our tall poppies a teensy bit taller than the rest, and we’ve got the shears always at hand in case their height exceeds our comfort level.

    Personally, I want the President to be better than me–a hell of a lot better. I want a President whose intellect makes me go all gooey just thinkin’ about it. I want a President I would be impressed and intimidated to meet–because that’s the effect I want our President to have on the world. I don’t want to have a beer with the President; I just want to be able to trust there’s a bright intellect in charge, handling the big stuff, so I can enjoy my own small, ill-educated, under-achieving life.

  6. Re: Weak and fluttery Female Fic;
    Could it be that these women feel that they need to be weak an ineffectual to attract a strong man who will protect them so that even in their historical novels they need to project weakness on strong female roll models?
    It’s sad that women think they need to be weak to attract a strong man, or is it that they feel they need to seem weaker to make ANY man look strong enough to protect them?

    Sorry, rough weekend, I’m rambling.

  7. Ramona says:

    So, have you seen The Other Boleyn Girl yet? What did you think? I’ve never read Philippa Gregory and probably never will based on your thoughts. But I would watch the movie.

  8. Corvus says:

    Oh, I don’t think I’d even bother with that Ramona. With so many good historical fiction movies out there, why watch dreck?

    I’d recommend Stage Beauty with Claire Danes and Billy Crudup.

  9. Ramona says:

    Looks interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.

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