The Wise Woman, which until now was the only Tudor-era novel of Gregory’s I hadn’t read, takes place on the moor in County Durham in the 1530s. The opening scene aptly foreshadows the dark tone. While its Mother Superior and her flock lie sleeping, an abbey is set ablaze. Lord Hugo, son of a local nobleman, has followed Henry VIII’s greedy example by attacking the church and stealing its holy treasures for himself.
Alys, the sixteen-year-old novice who is the abbess’s favorite, fails to wake Mother Hildebrande and her fellow sisters before fleeing into the night, leaving them to roast in their beds. She takes shelter with Morach, the wise woman who had taken her in as a foundling years ago, and who had taught her much about herbalism and the use of women’s power. Although Alys hates the low social status, poverty, uncleanliness, and perpetual hunger she’s forced to live with once again, she fights the idea of using any magic, however harmless, to better her lot. At least at first.
When word of her healing talents reaches elderly Lord Hugh, ill with a stomach ailment, he summons the young “wise woman” to his castle and installs her as his nurse and clerk. Alys, who quickly grows used to living in warmth and comfort, falls desperately, obsessively in love with Hugh’s handsome son, Hugo – the same man who destroyed the abbey. Weary of serving Hugo’s ill-tempered, barren wife, Catherine, discontent with the hopelessness of her situation, and hungry with desire for Hugo, Alys persuades Morach to teach her the black arts. But her diabolical plan to win him over and claim power for herself backfires dreadfully when it becomes clear she can’t control events at all. The evil she sets in motion has a mind of its own.
This was an uncomfortable read. The Alys-Hugo-Catherine relationship (“love triangle” isn’t really appropriate) – perhaps fueled by Alys’s black magic, perhaps by its own momentum – grows steadily more twisted as the novel progresses. Also, Alys, who is simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist, doesn’t exhibit enough confidence or strength to play either role well. Regardless of her naïveté and personal turmoil, which are considerable, her heartlessness dating back to Page One forfeited whatever empathy I might have had for her plight.
There are some compelling and authentic-seeming depictions of the wild, desolate moor; a boisterous Twelfth Night celebration (though several scenes will disturb animal lovers); and a 16th-century noble household, as seen by both servants and nobility. But there are few admirable characters, and even fewer likeable ones. Besides saintly Mother Hildebrande, Lord Hugh and Morach were the only two people, even as immoral as they were, with sufficient spirit and willpower to keep my attention for long. The novel’s pages turned quickly: in the beginning with curiosity, in the middle out of interest, and in the end from distaste – because I could no longer abide Alys’s company.
The novel has a strong, unavoidable theme: regardless of their social status, whether they choose a path paved by God or the devil, it’s the fate of sixteenth-century women to be trapped by circumstance, used, and discarded. Even worse than how men treat women is what women do to one another in their attempts to improve their station in a man’s world.
It can also be read, perhaps, as an allegory of the Henry VIII-Catherine of Aragon-Anne Boleyn story, one shifted and condensed in time and given a disturbing twist. (Details about Anne Boleyn’s decline reveal themselves at intervals, whenever news reaches County Durham from faraway London.) Is it coincidence that both father and son are named Hugh (instead of the two Henrys), the younger one (Hugo’s) wife is named Catherine, and Alys’s religious name was Sister Ann? Jane Seymour’s literary double even waits in the wings at the end. I’m unsure what fans of Gregory’s royal fiction will make of this reissue of her 1992 historical horror novel, but having a Tudor-era novel set away from the royal court was actually a plus for me. Also, reading The Wise Woman in conjunction with The Other Boleyn Girl provides much food for thought.
A disturbingly effective if heavy-handed depiction of feminine power and powerlessness in late medieval times.
Edited to add: This book has been available for a while. If you've read it, what did you think?