Follow Us on Twitter

The Wise Woman - Philippa Gregory

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

HAVING thoroughly enjoyed The Boleyn Inheritance, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Virgin’s Lover, I began reading Philippa Gregory’s The Wise Woman with high expectations. Sadly, they were never realized.

Set during the reign of Henry VIII, the story focuses on Alys, a young nun who escapes with her life when her abbey home is destroyed by fire. Alone in the world, she returns to Morach, the wise woman of Bowes Moor, whom she lived with as a child. But before very long, Alys, with her herbal remedies, finds herself taking care of the sick and aged Lord Hugh.

And it’s there, in his castle home, that she meets and falls in love with the young Lord Hugo, whose wife Catherine has so far failed to conceive a child. But as well as herbs, Alys dabbles in magic (or if you prefer, witchcraft) and initially spurning Hugo’s advances (remember the vow of chastity), she coerses a reluctant Morach into helping her ensure that Hugo and Catherine’s union is fruitful – a plan that involves three wax dolls…

It’s here that things start to get really silly and I can only assume that much of what follows is a figment of a psychotic Alys’ imagination. But mad or sane, Alys fails to win my sympathy, simply because she is one of the most loathsome characters I’ve ever come across. Flawed heroines are one thing; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that a flaw or two makes them more believable, but Alys takes selfishness and deviousness to new heights.

And the rest aren’t much better but I’ll leave you to find out why for yourselves – if you feel so inclined.

The Wise Woman isn’t a badly written book and the descriptive prose effectively evokes the harshness of the times. But why, I wonder, did Gregory feel the need to write so copiously and comprehensively about deviant sex? Apart from its link to the wax dolls (and if you believe in them, you’ll believe in anything), it’s completely irrelevant. So whereas Gregory’s historical novels will undoubtedy enlighten young minds, this one certainly won’t – or shouldn’t!

Sad to say, I disliked the characters as much as the subject matter and several times felt inclined to abandon the book altogether. Only the need to be au fait with its content in order to write this review obliged me to continue. So definitely not a book I’d recommend.

Read our review of The Boleyn Inheritance