Earthly Joys is a novel of historical fiction, certainly Philippa Gregory’s métier, set in 1603-1639, post-Elizabethan rule, as James I takes the English throne, bringing his Scottish entourage with him. This new king tolerates Papist practices and indulges in masks and diversions, wasting the coin of the treasury while burdening the common people with unnecessary taxes and enclosing their farmlands for royal use.
Robert Cecil, an indispensable statesman, steps in to advise the new King. Cecil’s estate is a favorite diversion for the royals, with its magnificent gardens and handsome appointments. John Tradescant is Cecil's chief gardener and a dear friend. John believes in the hierarchy of authority, from God to King to Lord to servant, his gardens reflecting an Eden without the taint of disorder: “a delicate marriage of wildness and artifice, an imposition of order upon unruliness, which... looked as if it had been ordered and well-ruled out of simple good nature.”
Commissioned to work at other fine estates after Cecil's death, Tradescant's intricate works of art are noticed by George Villier, the Duke of Buckingham, a confidant of both King James and his heir, King Charles I. Throughout the kingdom, the Duke’s name is fraught with scandal, his excesses legend. It is said that he is lover to both the King and his heir. When Tradescant meets Villier, he falls hopelessly in thrall, Buckingham's charm and beauty blinding John to the dangers of such an alliance.
By the end of James’s reign, the Duke is second only to the new monarch, Charles I, who, like his father, ignores the troubles of his people to indulge in his own pleasures. But John is helpless to deny the Duke, desperately in love with the charismatic dandy who is squandering the kingdom with the fawning approval of Charles I.
As John travels over the years for Cecil and the Duke, gathering cuttings and rarities, his son grows up much like his wife, Elizabeth, with a strong religious bent, questioning the King's lineage to God and eschewing finery for the more austere garb of the Puritans. But John’s blind faith in the Duke throws him into uncharted territory, seduced by Buckingham’s inordinate charms, mired in unfamiliar emotions, pledged to a man with alliances of the moment.
Throughout Earthly Joys, nature’s diversity is contrasted with the turmoil wrought by two selfish kings and their sycophants. Caught in the middle, Tradescant is wed to the beauty he creates but loses his balance in matters of the heart, constantly disappointed by the reality of his position in life: he is only a gardener, albeit the finest in all of England. Tradescant is as deeply flawed as the era he lives in, caught up in a dark vortex of conflicted emotions; John knows both indescribable joy and the depths of despair.
Tradescant’s figure serves as a metaphor for the changes sweeping a country devoted to the old ways yet tempted by the new, his heart tormented by helpless devotion to the Duke. His life parallels history - the reign of James I, Charles I, The Gunpowder Plot, the great crash of the tulip market in Holland, the clash of King and Parliament and a growing populist revolution, a world thrown into chaos by an irresponsible monarchy. Tradescant travels the globe gathering nature's variety to plant in English soil, but his soul is adrift in a rose-filled garden, the sharp thorns of loss hidden beneath the fragrant petals.