They say you should never judge a book by its cover and in the case of The People’s Queen, I have found that to be very true. The image on the cover of this particular book gives the impression that this is a typical ‘royal court’ novel, maybe similar to the sort of book you might expect from Philippa Gregory. If you take away the cover, the novel itself – written in third person present tense and with a focus on politics, money and trade rather than love and romance – feels much more like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Our heroine, if it’s possible to call her that, is Alice Perrers, most famous for being a mistress of England’s King Edward III (who reigned from 1327 to 1377). Alice was never a queen and, as far as I can tell, was never popular with the people either, so I’m not sure where the title of the novel comes from – other than that she was a woman from a humble background who rose to a position of power. I have read fictional portrayals of Alice before, but only as a secondary character, so I was curious to see how she would fare as the protagonist of her own story.
The People’s Queen is structured around the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune. As the novel opens, Alice is riding at the top of the wheel, at the height of her power and influence. During her rise, Alice has made a lot of enemies…but also some friends, including the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who has gained a new position as comptroller of customs for the Port of London under Alice’s patronage. It is said that pride comes before a fall, however, and Alice’s fortunes are about to change.
Aware that the King is starting to grow old and infirm and won’t be around forever, Alice begins to make plans for the future. Knowing that she will lose his financial support when he dies, she enters into an unscrupulous business venture, confident that nobody will discover what she has been doing. Eventually, of course, Alice’s schemes start to fall apart as the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn again.
Alice’s story takes place during an interesting and eventful period of English history: the novel incorporates the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt and features characters such as John of Gaunt, the Black Prince, Katherine Swynford and Wat Tyler. Somehow, though, Vanora Bennett manages to make a potentially fascinating story feel boring and passionless. I mentioned a similarity to Hilary Mantel, but the similarity is in the style of writing only. Where Wolf Hall is a compelling and enjoyable novel, The People’s Queen just isn’t, at least not in my opinion. Not being particularly interested in economic history, I thought there was too much time spent discussing taxes, budgets, loans and interest rates. I was also disappointed in the lack of medieval atmosphere; I think the author was trying to draw parallels with modern life and modern politics, but I felt that this came at the expense of creating a sense of time and place.
I do think Bennett does a good job of making Alice a complex, well-rounded character. She is shown to be greedy, ambitious and manipulative, as well as intelligent and shrewd…but she also has a softer, more vulnerable side, and it can’t be denied that she does provide some happiness and comfort to Edward. The way in which she becomes involved with Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt appears to be completely fictional and does not feel convincing, but I liked the portrayal of her friendship with Geoffrey Chaucer (which forms a major part of the story). There is some historical basis for this as they did know each other and Alice is believed by some historians to be the inspiration for the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Despite finding Alice an interesting character, though, I didn’t feel any sort of connection with her. I didn’t expect to actually like her, but it was disappointing to find that I didn’t care at all what happened to her.
I haven’t given up on Vanora Bennett yet because I did like Midnight in St Petersburg a lot more than this book and I also still have Queen of Silks on my shelf to be read. I’ll hope for a better experience with that one!