Insight into how far we are from 17th century minds

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Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory

John Tradescant is uniquely skilled at collecting, raising and nurturing plants. His practical good sense makes him an invaluable servant, as he scours the known world for new and beautiful species, and penetrates the most secret activities at court.

Here both King Charles I and Tradescant are in thrall to the irresistible Duke of Buckingham, the most powerful man in England.

Tradescant has always been faithful to his masters, but Buckingham is unlike any he has ever known: flamboyant, outrageously charming, utterly reckless. The court may love him but the people hate him.

Every certainty upon which Tradescant has based his life is challenged as his personal world is turned upside down and all around him the country slides towards civil war.

Karin: I liked Wolf Hall and don’t think this is anywhere near as good, I found it very unbelievable in places.

Jean: I’m the opposite, I enjoyed it far more than the Hilary Mantel. The characters seemed like real people, I liked the historical setting. Speaking as someone trying to create a garden, I really enjoyed that aspect. It’s my first Philippa Gregory, and I want more.

Val: Yes, I want to read the sequel, Virgin Earth.

Linda: I could have done with a bibliography, it would have been nice to see her research. It did lead me to read The Tulip by Anna Pavord at last.

Jean: Does anyone know how true it is?

Greta: I find this difficult – putting what really happened into the mouths of notionally fictional characters – thinking that we know what went on in a real person’s mind.

Maureen: This is really about character, it is fundamentally fiction.

Jean: But I always wonder which bits were true...

Rosemary: My feeling was that the research got in the way of the story, I didn’t connect with the characters. I would almost have preferred to read the actual history, whereas I felt much more involved with Wolf Hall.

Val: It shows me how much people were bound by the thinking of the times.

Linda: Yes, that made it very hard to get into their mindset.

Rosemary: The idea of this uncouth man, James I, being the creator of the Bible – academically learned, but a complete idiot.

Jean: He was known as the wisest fool in Christendom.

Greta: The wealth he found in the English court went to his head. There was thought to be a direct line from God through the king to the courtiers – to question the king was to question God. They truly believed in the divine right of kings.

Eileen: Heather chose this book for the gardening content, I’m not particularly into gardening, but I really enjoyed that aspect.

Maureen: I thought the gardening theme made the book.

Jean: I’m rather hoping that his daughter, Francis, would be in the sequel, I loved her spirit, wanting to become a gardener too.

Rosemary: The travelling was astonishing: bringing plants from Russia and India – amazing.

Jean: Apparently the curiosities John collected form the basis of the Ashmoleon Museum.

Karin: I did find interesting that he was actually questioning God’s creating so many species of plants: very forward-thinking, almost heresy.

Jean: It reminds me of This Thing of Darkeness by Harry Thompson where Darwin is cataloguing animals – a fantastic read.

Sandra: The people who functioned well were the gardener and his family, while the rich, who had everything they needed, were not happy with their lot.

Maureen: You just knew your place, and I think she does that very well.

Karin: Except the women don’t really go along with that.

Sandra: Although underneath, the women actually ran the homes – though apparently subservient to their husbands, they were the quiet rulers.

Greta: Philippa Gregory portrays the period as a tipping point: producing a version of the Bible that the common man can have access to. Of course it’s known to this day as the King James Bible, so it’s still coming directly from him.

Sandra: And it’s beautifully written, I’m rather sorry when it’s not used.

Eileen: I wasn’t sure why she put in the homosexual encounter.

Sandra: It did illustrate how someone like Buckingham could use his power.

Karin: Yes, I didn’t find it very believable – there is a note in the text that emphasises it’s a work of fiction.

Rosemary: I had the title in my mind as heavenly joys rather than earthly – they believed that God had given it to them.

Eileen: The title covers many more earthly joys than simply gardening, I really enjoyed it, even though I wasn’t looking forward to reading it.

The group meets at The Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells. The next meeting is on Wednesday February 9 and the book is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. For more information, please contact Rosamund at