by Philippa Gregory (1998 HarperCollins)
Reviewed by Georgina Craufurd
Does anyone remember The Times’s Fourth Leader? It was serious commentary on some topic of the day, but expressed in a light-hearted voice and with wit. I hope to present to readers of the Newsletter two such books, more for their entertainment than their education. They are both quirky: like Marmite, you will love them or hate them, I foresee.
The first is a work of fiction, Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory, now better known as a historian and novelist of the Wars of the Roses. Earthly Joys, the first of two biographical novels about the John Tradescants, father and son, of course covers a later period, that of the reign of James I and the first half of the reign of Charles I. Defining the scope of the book by rulers is pertinent here, as John Tradescant the elder (1570-1638) worked directly for both these kings, and for the Duke of Buckingham, and for Charles’s wife Henrietta Maria. Having an employer who considered he has a divine right to order your career was clearly an uncomfortable situation, but history shows that John Tradescant I had the necessary diplomatic gifts to survive. This brings me to a question whose answer I do not know: how much of the book is recorded fact and how much is inspired guesswork. Tradescant’s Ark, his museum of curiosities in Lambeth (which became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) is well documented, and Gregory clearly has stuck close to her sources. On the other hand, Tradescant’s relationship with the first duke of Buckingham is beyond the scope of my knowledge, but may well come under the Italian proverb which translates as ‘If it isn’t true, it’s well invented’. The sequel, Virgin Earth, covers the career of John Tradescant II (1608-1662). I enjoyed this less, partly because I found the character of the protagonist less appealing and the period of the Civil War more tragic. But it is worth giving it a try.