The Queen's Fool

Philippa Gregory

Review by me! Click here to check out this book at

One of the things I've always liked about Philippa Gregory is that she knows her stuff and is very strict about the extent to which she plays with history; she'll mess around with people's personalities all she likes, but (as far as I know) she never changes a plausible fact, so you may come away with a funny idea of people's motivations but she won't actually teach you wrong. This book covers the period of Bloody Mary's reign, give or take a bit, through the eyes of a secretly Jewish 'holy fool' named Hannah who is sent to spy on the queen by the callous, manipulative, power-hungry Dudley family. Guess whose side *I* was on :-D

In fact you're supposed to sympathise because Hannah, Elizabeth, the author, and (unless you're a *very* straight man) the reader all develop one massive crush on Robert Dudley over the course of the book. Other than this mild romanticisation, which I can forgive because she gives him enough charisma to get away with it, the points of interest are two; the game she plays with the respective personalities of Mary and Elizabeth, and the portrayal of the various jesters.

There's an ongoing theme throughout the book that Mary wasn't the psychopathic bint she's generally portrayed as, but rather a queen both sensible and honourable who went a bit bananas after the two false pregnancies and the realisation that she'd married a Spanish twit; whereas Elizabeth is a neurotic, politically manipulative drama queen who oozes Tudor charisma and deliberately copies those aspects of Mary's personality which come across well. This means that if you know your schoolchild history and/or have ever seen Elizabeth R, you will spot Mary preparing to use the line Elizabeth later used on becoming queen, Mary making an earlier equivalent of the I-may-be-but-a-weak-and-feeble-woman speech to rouse London against a Protestant rebellion, and a good few others. On the historical accuracy of this I make no comment but it's certainly an amusing conceit.

But what really won me over to this book was the portrayal of jesters. Hannah is begged to the queen as a holy fool (cue trivial but annoying mystical edge), but Gregory makes a decent distinction between fool and jester as Hannah progresses from an innocent child who stumbles from one political intrigue to the next to a witty political operator who's in them up to her neck. (Though interestingly, she still *thinks* she's the holy fool and innocent victim, which makes the first person view pretty good - one of my favourite literary tricks is writing where you look over the head of the narrator.)

Even better is the portrayal of the jester Will Somers - I had no idea he was still around into Elizabeth I's reign, but on consideration it's quite likely that he was only a kid when he was first sent to Henry VIII's service. Gregory does a particularly good job of him as a proper jester who speaks truth through jokes and is all about politics, as well as being a genuinely nice bloke. (Somers was known as the Poor Man's Friend because he used to persuade Henry to do nice things) She also manages the old problem pretty well; to write a fantastically witty jester, you have to *be* fantastically witty. So she keeps his jokes funny, plausible and historically accurate for a jester of the time, and doesn't overreach, for which I am heartily grateful. For contrast, see the joke-writing in The Jester by James Patterson, a book so bad I would rather beat myself to death with it than ever read it again.

So yes. Enough review wibble, but if you can stand a little romance with your history I thought this was fundamentally a decent book. And I liked it more than I thought it was good (well, I've never claimed taste) :-p

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