Philobiblon: Beware the backlist

Monday, July 18, 2005

Beware the backlist

Philippa Gregory's The Queen's Fool is an entertaining, well-researched novel of Tudor times, based on an interesting premise, the female "fool". Its title character moves from the endangered household of Princess Elizabeth to the unhappy court of Queen Mary. (More here.)

So when I was looking around for a bit of light, entertaining reading, I picked up her The Wise Woman, set earlier, during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries. I thought it would be an interesting contrast to Dissolution, the novel set in the same period that I wrote about recently.

I was, however, severely disappointed with The Wise Woman. The research seems scanty - the characters assume a human gestational period of nine months, which I'm sure was not the belief then, and Alys, the title character, moves from peasant's shack to castle with ridiculous ease.

But what is really wrong with the book is the nature of the main character. As a foundling she is taken in by a horribly poor "wise woman"; then she becomes a nun; then ends up as a waiting woman in that castle, and throughout she shows not one skerrick of compassion or interest in anyone who helps her - in fact her actions cause, directly or indirectly, the death of all of them. The message of the book seems to be: don't trust anyone who's lived in poverty, because they'll only ever be out for the main chance, and will be thoroughly unreliable.

Aside from the ridiculousness of that message, as a central character in the novel, Alys is just not someone you want to spend time with.

Just how this novel got published I find hard to imagine. Perhaps the editor saw potential in the writer, and was prepared to wait for it to come out, but in the meantime, this is a cautionary tale: just because an author has written a good book, it doesn't mean their earlier work was worthy of your attention, or your cash.

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