The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett

The Peoples Queen 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!

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16 thoughts on “The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    I find something rather captivating about the cover of this book, it is like we have just caught a person in a private moment. However I too would have presumed, wrongly, that this was a romantic, historical fiction. All those taxes, budgets, loans and interest rates reminds me of the non-fiction about Henry IV I’ve just read! I hope you enjoy Queen of Silks more 🙂

    • FictionFan says:

      Ha! Reading Jessica’s comment made me laugh, since all that tax stuff made me think of the same Henry IV biography! Pity this one didn’t quite work for you, but hopefully the next one will… 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Jessica, I will definitely give Queen of Silks a try, but if I don’t like that one either I’ll just accept that Vanora Bennett is not an author for me. And yes, the picture on the cover is quite intriguing, even if it doesn’t really represent the book very well!

  2. camilledefleurville says:

    When I saw the cover, I thought “Oh, no, not another Philippa Gregory, please!”. Then you raised my expectations, talking of “Wolf Hall”. And I found myself smiling at your description of taxtes, budget, and economic history. Even when a novelist has done his or her ground job, it shouldn’t show in the narrative. All in all, I like the frank, open and honest way you have to talk about a book, including the bad parts or unpleasant aspects. Thank you.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks – I always give my honest opinion of the books I read, but I try not to be completely negative as there’s usually at least something I liked. This book was disappointing but there were still some good aspects and maybe other readers will find the medieval economy more interesting to read about than I did!

  3. Lizzi says:

    I too enjoyed Midnight in St Petersburg so it’s disappointing that this wasn’t as good! Your review is excellent though. I hope you enjoy Queen of Silks more!

    • Helen says:

      This book and Midnight in St Petersburg are so different in terms of writing style they almost feel as though they could have been written by different authors! I’m hoping Queen of Silks is going to be more like Midnight in St Petersburg.

  4. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I would have walked past that cover, but as I read your words my hopes rose and then fell. What a pity the book wasn’t more involving, because the subject matter clearly had potential and hadn’t been explored my novelists as much as it might.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I am always amazed when two books by the same author seem to have been written by different authors. Thanks for what they call an “honest review.” I have had my own reading trials lately (you can read about my reading slump at my blog) but I am pleased to report the pendulum has swung.

    • Helen says:

      I’m hoping she was just experimenting with a different writing style in this book and that Queen of Silks will be more like Midnight in St Petersburg, which I enjoyed. I’m glad to hear you’re out of your reading slump!

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