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The People's Queen by Vanora Bennett

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Miss Moppet
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The People's Queen by Vanora Bennett

Post by Miss Moppet » Fri October 15th, 2010, 7:43 pm

I'm very glad I didn't let the cover put me off reading this book. (I’m with those reviewers who think the model appears to be examining her train for doggy doo). The cover also gives a false impression of the book, suggesting that it is women’s historical fiction in the Philippa Gregory mould, whereas it is actually much closer to the Wolf Hall end of the spectrum.

The ‘Queen’ of the title is Alice Perrers, mistress to the ageing Edward III. It’s established fairly early on that the people hate Alice, but she is their queen in the sense that she is of the people. Whereas the Alice Emma Campion portrayed in The King’s Mistress was the virginal daughter of a respectable merchant family, Bennett’s Alice has risen from the peasantry to the court via a Forever Amber-like series of escapades and marriages. (Although this is anything but a bodice ripper: sex scenes are few and not explicit). There's a vast gap between the Alice of The King’s Mistress (passive victim of events) and this Alice (manipulative social climber) - and while I don’t know enough about Alice and her world to say which is closer to the truth, I did find Bennett’s characterisation far more rounded and convincing.

The People’s Queen covers seven years in Alice’s life: 1374 to 1381, year of the Peasants’ Revolt. The prologue is set during the Black Death, known as the Mortality, which claimed the lives of a third of Europe’s population. The book takes for its theme the Wheel of Fortune, and when it begins Alice is at the top of the wheel, feared and respected in both Court and City. So there’s nowhere to go but down.

Alice’s fight to secure her future by exploiting the broken postwar economy is linked with the power struggle between Edward III’s sons, Geoffrey Chaucer’s marital misfortunes and the career of Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. I enjoyed the voice despite the use of my unfavourite present tense and the profuse authorial narration. It’s very Victorian, but it worked for me because Vanora Bennett writes with such confidence and enthusiasm, whether describing the free-for-all that followed the Black Death or the peripatetic medieval court.

The downside: although there is enough action to carry the book along, it could have been faster-paced. Occasionally it gets bogged down in detail, and the Chaucer scenes in particular don’t tend to move the story very far along. Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt, appears, but only in a cameo role – I would have liked her point of view to have been added into the mix. I would also have liked dates at the top of each chapter and I would have liked the Author’s Note to have more discussion of the background to the story as well as an explanation of what happened after it ends.

As historical fiction, this is a welcome blend of the literary and the popular. As a royal mistress novel, it’s the ideal answer to anyone who thinks the subject of royal mistresses belongs in a pink, frilly historical ghetto. Bennett’s Alice is the first power mistress, socially mobile, a property tycoon, a symbol of her grasping, ambitious age, who would be broken on the wheel of fortune for her sex and her class as much as for her corruption.

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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Sat October 16th, 2010, 4:55 pm

Excellent review Moppett. I agree with everything you say and your review mirrors my own impression. I could believe in this version of Alice Perrers and despite the sometimes slow pacing, I liked this one a lot. I was interested in the Lewis (sp) child too. It seems plausible, true or not (probably isn't). I also thought that the Philippa/Chaucer relationship was a lot more believable than what I remember of it in Seton's Katherine.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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Leo62
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Post by Leo62 » Mon October 18th, 2010, 6:27 pm

I'm still only half-way through, but can only add my "what she said" to the mix. :D I find Bennett a gutsy and insightful, if flawed, writer. She seems to excite strong feelings, pro and anti, because she's unafraid to kick a few sacred cows and push the boundaries. She gets away with it, for me, because her characters are always very believable, psychologically rounded human beings.
listen:there's a hell
of a good universe next door;let's go
ee cummings

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Miss Moppet
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Post by Miss Moppet » Mon October 18th, 2010, 9:22 pm

[quote=""Leo62""]I find Bennett a gutsy and insightful, if flawed, writer. She seems to excite strong feelings, pro and anti, because she's unafraid to kick a few sacred cows and push the boundaries. She gets away with it, for me, because her characters are always very believable, psychologically rounded human beings.[/quote]

I think she got away with it with Alice, as far as I was concerned, because we don't really know very much about Alice - she could have been anyone, a merchant's daughter, impoverished gentry, even a peasant. So her characterisation worked. I've been looking at the Blood Royal/Queen's Lover reviews and it sounds like she tried the same thing with Katherine de Valois which would be less plausible, because more is known about her and she was royal and would live a much more circumscribed life. So I'm not at all sure I would like Blood Royal as much.

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