Book Review: The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

Published: May 27th, 2008 by Touchstone

Pages: 520The wise woman

Genre: Historical Fiction

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Publisher’s Blurb: Growing up as an abandoned outcast on the moors, young Alys’ only company is her cruel foster mother, Morach, the local wise woman who is whispered to practice the dark arts. Alys joins a nunnery to escape the poverty and loneliness she has felt all her life, but all too soon her sanctuary is destroyed. King Henry VIII’s followers burn the holy place to the ground, and Alys only just manages to escape with her life, haunted by the screams of her sisters as they burned to death. She finds work in a castle not far from where she grew up as an old lord’s scribe, where she falls obsessively in love with his son Hugo. But Hugo is already married to a proud woman named Catherine. Driven to desperation by her desire, she summons the most dangerous powers Morach taught her, but quickly the passionate triangle of Alys, Hugo, and Catherine begins to explode, launching them into uncharted sexual waters. The magic Alys has conjured now has a life of its own—a life that is horrifyingly and disastrously out of control. Is she a witch? Since heresy means the stake, and witchcraft the rope, Alys is in mortal danger, treading a perilous path between her faith and her own power.

The Author: Philippa Gregory was an established historian and writer when she discovered her interest in the Tudor period and wrote the novel The Other Boleyn Girl, which was made into a TV drama and a major film. Published in 2009, the bestselling The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville, ushered in a new series involving The Cousins’ War (now known as The War of the Roses) and a new era for the acclaimed author. Gregory lives with her family on a small farm in Yorkshire, where she keeps horses, hens and ducks. Visitors to her site, become addicted to the updates of historical research, as well as the progress of her ducklings. Her other great interest is the charity she founded nearly twenty years ago; Gardens for The Gambia. She has raised funds and paid for 140 wells in the primary schools of the dry, poverty stricken African country. Thousands of school children have learned market gardening, and drunk the fresh water in the school gardens around the wells. A former student of Sussex University, and a PhD and Alumna of the Year 2009 of Edinburgh University, her love for history and her commitment to historical accuracy are the hallmarks of her writing. She also reviews for US and UK newspapers, and is a regular broadcaster on television, radio, and webcasts from her website.

My Thoughts: I am sure by now I would be sounding like a broken record when I say Philippa Gregory is my best Historical Fiction author of all time, but I have to say it again. I never read this book since its publication probably because I was so obsessed with the Tudor Court and Plantagenet novels until now but I must say it was a good one. There were times I was actually frightened and forgot it was just fiction and other times it got me thinking deeply of how our lust for the good life can make us go down a dark path that would eventually lead to our destruction. The story of Alys, an orphan who was left at the door step of Morah, a Wise Woman ( a healer, mid-wife and witch) whom she raised as her own though not affectionately but yet as her own is a tale of selfishness, covetousness and witchcraft. Alys was always about herself, in the entire story she had no genuine love for anyone except herself. She was quick to leave her first love for the abbey as soon as she realized the comfort and protection it would give her. When the Abbey was burnt down and she escaped back to Morah, it was always easy for her to betray everyone who stood in her path of gain whether it was for  comfort or Hugo. Alys was no respecter of oaths or promises, she broke them at will when it didn’t suit her or when she felt threatened.  I sincerely question her so called ‘Love’ for Hugo as I saw it as one that only fulfilled her purpose at the time. As with all things that have to do with the devil, it always fails in the end and it was not different for Alys as her life eventually ended the way it did. My favorite character was Lord Hugh, Hugo’s father as he had a lot of wise words which  I will remember for a long time – “Always check a man’s purse before you scan his heart, little Alys. That is where most decisions are made” and in another occasion in conversation with Hugo his son – “You’re a young man with a young man’s ambition, Hugo, he said, but I am an old man with an old man’s love for order, and while I am alive, we will do things in the old way. When I am dead, you will do as you please. But I imagine that when you have a son of your own, you will be as unwilling to gamble with his inheritance as I am unwilling to gamble with yours”. Catherine, Hugo’s wife was another character that clearly shows the value that was placed on noble women in those times. You were only sort after if you had a good dowry and even after you have been wedded and bedded as they say, you were shouldered with the responsibility to produce an heir for your husband. Catherine’s inability to give Hugo a son put her in the position of  slave instead of wife where she spent her life trying to win his love by all means especially as his desire for Alys  was a force that no one could control. I saw this book as a balanced account of the times of King Henry the Eight as it did not dwell only on the lives of noble folk but also peasants who lived in the villages and the fall of the Catholic church in England. I recommend this book for all historical fiction lovers. Get a copy and enjoy!



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