I have just finished re-reading Philippa Gregory's book The Wise Woman. This is one of my favorite novels by Gregory and if you enjoyed reading the Wideacre trilogy or The Other Boleyn Girl then you will love The Wise Woman.
The novel is set in Tudor England during the Reformation. The protagonist is a young woman called Alys; a runaway nun, escaping her burning convent and fleeing to her old mentor Morach, the wise woman on the moor. With her knowledge as a herbalist Alys is summoned to the castle to care for the ailing old Lord Hugh. There she meets the young Lord Hugo and her vows are truly tested as she finds herself sexually attracted to a man for the very first time. Will she hold true to her vows, or will Lord Hugo trick her into seduction and sin?
While the story is set within the confines of a Northern castle, the happenings at Court provide the backdrop for the story and The Wise Woman is set within the same time frame as The Other Boleyn Girl. As first Anne Boleyn and then Jane Seymour rise from lady's maid to be Queens of England, Alys determines to emulate their success and to use all her powers to make herself the first lady of Castleton castle - no matter what the cost. But every day she walks in danger as discovery of her convent days or her magical mentor means that Alys might well be burned as a heretic or hanged as a witch. She must tread a careful line of pushing for her ambitions, without overstepping the mark with the old Lord. Alys is nothing if not resourceful - she will do anything to save her own skin - this novel is an education in betrayal, deceit and hypocrisy! Just how far will Alys go to ensure that she is the last one standing?
One of the things I really like about this book are the descriptions of castle life; it is as if you are climbing the turret steps feeling the fresh breeze from the arrow slits; sitting before a great log fire hearing it spit and crackle; reading and writing in the glow of flickering candles; hiding herbs and oils away in a great oak chest; stitching away at a great colourful tapestry in the ladies gallery... its just so atmospheric! And for a girl who has always wanted to live in a castle, its just perfect for me :) Of the whole book, my favorite part has to be when the wax poppets take on a life of their own, betray their mistress and run amok - for some reason, this part always reminds me of the fairy-tale of the little gingerbread man as the sinister little poppets begin to act on their own will. It is a great novel which foreshadows the wonderful Tudor series of books Gregory is now most famous for. Spell-binding escapism for a cold, frosty winter's weekend.