Review: Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory

Seventeenth-century England is the setting for this engaging historical novel based on the life of John Tradescant, a gardener of common birth who transforms plain plots of land into slices of heaven on earth. As vassal to the secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil, Tradescant—who, as fate would have it, had no sense of smell—places his master’s garden above all else, much to the chagrin of his wife, Elizabeth, and young son, J. Tradescant’s affinity for botanicals is matched by his thirst for adventure; in the service of his lord, he travels to distant lands to defend his country’s honor (and collect cuttings of rare and exotic plants). When Tradescant is summoned by King James I’s closest confidante, the dark-haired and devious Duke of Buckingham, he is immediately taken by the nobleman’s beauty. Devotion soon turns to erotic obsession, and Tradescant must face the consequences of loving a fickle, heartless man.

Review by Erastes

I wouldn’t say “if you aren’t into gardening, don’t get this,” but you WILL appreciate it a lot more if you have an inkling of gardening and plants. It’s the story of a very famous – and one of the first “celebrity” gardeners, John Tradescant who was a gardener to many famous people during the reign of three monarchs, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I.

She paints a very believable picture of John, his family and his life. John is a man who must belong to a master, that’s how his life has always been and that’s how he thinks his life must always be. He starts the book in the employ of Robert Cecil, building the gardens of Hatfield House and he is very close – a confidante and friend – to the great man. After he dies, John moves around from master to master until he is ordered to the new and fabulous estate of George Villiers – first Duke of Buckingham, the most powerful man in the land and favourite of the then King, James I. It is in Villiers’ service that he discovers a lot about the meaning of loyalty and a lot more about himself.

This is a “Romance” in both senses of the word, the author does a wonderful job telling a fair portion of Tradescant the Older’s story, although missing out some portions of it, to my disappointment and amusingly missing out that he actually looked like a pregnant goat, if the portraits of the day were to believed. It was easier NOT to look at what he looked like, because then it was easier to believe that the beautiful George Villiers would want to bed him.

I enjoyed it a lot, however, more – it has to be said – for the fascinating insight into the introduction of plants into England (he brought the first six horse chestnut “conkers” back to England for example, and lost money in Tulipmania) – rather than for the homosexual story. However, the litery license that Gregory takes by assuming an affair with Villiers works perfectly within the character that she has drawn and it’s a vital thread in the book.

Gregory writes convincingly and in a very approachable style although strangely I didn’t get addicted to this book in ways that I have with others. I had no desperation to find out what happened, even when I was in the early parts of the book. In fact it took me well over a month to read, while I read many other books in the interim.

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5 Responses

  1. Nice to see this one mentioned – I see I enjoyed it a lot more than you, but then I’m a great Philippa Gregory fan!


  2. I’ve picked this one up in book stores several times lately, and put it down again. I might have to persevere! I read another of hers and like you, struggled to finish it but it sounds as if it’s worth giving this one a go, at least.

  3. It was the first Gregory I’d read, Anne, I don’t think I’ll read another, although someone has recently given me a Boleyn one.

    It’s worth a read, Fiona, definitely – fascinating to see all the horse chestnuts in the country now and to know they all came from six little conkers that he grew and didn’t even know what they were going to look like, or how to care for them.

  4. […] can compare this book to Philipa Gregory’s “Earthly Joys” which I rate more highly, where the themes of passion for the natural world, and a […]

  5. […] of my favourites is Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory, which includes Lord Villiers, the first lord of Buckingham (said to be the […]

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