I particularly enjoyed historical writer Vanora Bennett’s Queen of Silks. Protagonist Isabel Lambert is driven and sympathetic, attempting to rejuvenate 15th century England’s inefficient silk industry and, while ultimately failing, it still comes across as interesting, with a woman lead you can root for and groan with when her efforts come undone.
The same, however, cannot be said for her newest novel, The People’s Queen, and protagonist/anti-heroine Alice Perrers. Perrers was mistress to King Edward III in the 14th century, a woman who accumulated a lot of wealth through Edward’s favour and her own political savvy but ultimately lost the lot. True, she lost it because the men she was in ‘business’ with (and I use the term loosely – today we’d call them crooks) hung her out to dry, but it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her. Alice is greedy and a back-stabber to a point that you know she’s left a trail of paperwork behind her that will eventually prove her undoing. (So she’s not even a smart crook – or at least too greedy to think straight.) And unless Bennet was being ironic, the title is somewhat misleading: Perrers grated against the nobility and alienated the people with her flashy, indulgent ways. She cheats on her husband with the King, she cheats on the King with poet/courtier Thomas Chaucer. So when it all comes crashing down, instead of any sympathy for her, my thoughts were ‘ha, she got hers’.This book did nothing to explore a more nuanced idea of Perrers beyond the stereotype of her as a greedy, grasping royal mistress. Hell, if Jean Plaidy can bring sympathy to Marie Antoinette, surely more can be done for Perrers?
Ironically, Bennet captures fourteenth-century England well: the opulence, the corruption, the waste, the arbitrary powers of the King and the disconnect between the nobility and the people. If you like 14th century English historical fiction, read this book. If you like 14th century FEMINIST English historical fiction, don’t read this book. If I wanted to read about Alice Perrers the greedy, grasping royal mistress, I’d have saved mysef the trouble and gone to Wikipedia.