Two from Maureen Peters

Maureen Peters (1935-2008) was a Welsh historical novelist and yet another forgotten author whose work is being reissued for a modern audience by Endeavour Press. It seems that Peters was very prolific, writing over one hundred books under several different pseudonyms; most of them were fictional biographies of historical royalty, but she also wrote romances, Gothic novels, family sagas and mysteries. Having now had the opportunity to read two of her books I thought I would combine my thoughts on both of them into one post.

The Queenmaker The first book I’m going to talk about, The Queenmaker (1975), tells the story of Bess Hardwick, one of the richest and most notable women of the Elizabethan court, responsible for the building of great houses such as Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall. Born in Derbyshire, Bess is married at an early age to Robert Barlow, the heir of a neighbouring family, and finds herself a widow within a year. She will marry three more times over the course of her life and with each marriage her wealth increases and her position in society advances. She becomes a friend of Elizabeth I (the queen acts as godmother to her first son), and also has the opportunity to get to know Mary, Queen of Scots during her captivity in England.

With power and influence, though, comes the threat of danger. When Bess arranges a marriage for her daughter with Charles Stuart (son of the Countess of Lennox, Henry VIII’s niece), the family instantly come under suspicion because the child of this marriage, a little girl called Arbella, has Tudor blood and therefore a claim to the crown. As the years go by and Arbella grows into a woman, Bess becomes more and more convinced that her granddaughter will be named heir to the throne and that she – Bess Hardwick – will go down in history as a queenmaker.

Before reading this book I knew very little about Bess; I had come across her name several times in books set at Elizabeth’s court, but I couldn’t have told you any details of her personal life or her accomplishments. Because so much in this novel was new to me, I found it quite an enjoyable read. Obviously I knew that Bess wouldn’t achieve her ambition and Arbella wouldn’t become queen, but I was still interested to see how the story would unfold. However, I thought this book was too short to be completely satisfying. Trying to give an account of an entire life in under 200 pages means leaving big gaps in the story and jumping forward by several years at the start of every chapter. A longer novel would have allowed characters and events to be explored more thoroughly.

The Virgin Queen The Virgin Queen (1972) is another quick and fairly entertaining read which, as the title suggests, focuses on the life of Elizabeth I herself this time. Our narrator is Tomasin Drew, Elizabeth’s friend and companion, who first meets the future queen when Elizabeth is still a young girl living in the household of her stepmother, Katherine Parr. Tomasin remains with the queen for more than fifty years, offering support and friendship throughout the key moments of her life and reign.

Elizabeth is portrayed as a spirited, flirtatious and capricious woman, if not a very likeable one: a strong character, who jumps out of the pages of this novel, unlike Tomasin who stays in the background. Tomasin’s role is as an observer, reporting and commenting on events for the reader; her own personal story is left undeveloped, putting the spotlight firmly on Elizabeth. As with The Queenmaker, though, the approach Maureen Peters takes is disappointingly simplistic. This is another very short novel – too short to look at Elizabeth’s life in any real depth – and there’s nothing new here for those of us who have read about Elizabeth I many times before.

I think both The Virgin Queen and The Queenmaker might be good choices for younger readers or those who simply want a quick introduction to the Elizabethan period (while being aware that not everything in these books will be completely accurate – I spotted at least a few statements for which there is no historical proof, such as Anne Boleyn having six fingers on one hand). I haven’t ruled out reading more of Maureen Peters’ novels, but I’m not in any hurry to do so while there are so many other authors still to discover.

I received copies of both of the above novels via NetGalley for review.

10 thoughts on “Two from Maureen Peters

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    Interesting to hear your thoughts of these two novels. I have enjoyed quite a few of Endeavour’s re-issues and I was tempted by The Queen Maker because Bess Hardwick is not a character I have ever read about. This novel sounds little short and simple for me but it does sound like I should definitely keep Bess Hardwick in mind, as a character to read about in the future

    • Helen says:

      Bess was an interesting character, so I was disappointed that the book wasn’t a bit longer and more detailed. I’ll be looking out for more novels about her and will let you know if I find a better one!

  2. FictionFan says:

    Isn’t it true, then, about the six fingers? I must have picked up that snippet somewhere when I was young and just assumed it to be correct. In fact, and again I have no idea where I got this idea from, I believed she changed the style of dress at court to have these long sleeves that come down over the hands in order to hide her extra finger. Isn’t it funny how these things become accepted as fact?

    • Helen says:

      Apparently when Anne’s body was exhumed in the 19th century they found no evidence of a sixth finger. She may have had a small growth on one hand, but the extra finger is thought to be a myth started by an Elizabethan writer who wanted to discredit Anne.

  3. Martin Peters says:

    May I add a personal note to the review and the comments?

    I am Maureen Peters’ son. She also wrote under the following names: Catherine Darby, Veronica Black, Belinda Grey, Levanah Lloyd, Judith Rothman, and Sharon Whitby, I’m none too certain as to the exact number of published books in total, but it would be nearer 200 than 100. This, of course, compromises quality to some extent, but you have to remember that after a brief time teaching this  was her – and our (my two sisters and me) livelihood.

    She began around 1965 when, with her husband away from home for long periods (he was in the Navy) she got bored and started writing a novel. She’d written a lot as a kid and this wish to create came back to her. Everything was in longhand. She would sit in her armchair and start writing, always accompanied by cups of coffee and strong cigarettes. For “relaxing” there would be knitting and reading. Food didn’t really interest her as such, but conversation and late nights did.

    As for research, it’s true that you can find many factual errors in her books. It’s no excuse, I know, but you have to remember that these were pre-internet days, and so research would involve trips to the local library, occasionally to the British Library, and bookshops. No Amazon in those days! And as each book brought some royalties in (gradually more needed than ever as her marriage broke down), then quantity took the place of quality to a certain extent. But I think her books brought joy to many, and sometimes crossed the line from light reading to something more substantial.

    My mother died some years ago, at far too young an age, but she was an inspiration to me and my sisters, and it’s good to see her memory being kept alive in some small way. Thanks for the candour and depth of the review and comments, by the way!

    Martin Peters

    • Helen says:

      Thank you for commenting, Martin. It’s always good to hear from someone who can offer some personal insights into an author and their work.

      I hope I didn’t sound too critical of your mother’s books – I read a lot of older historical fiction novels and I can certainly appreciate how much more difficult it must have been to carry out research in the pre-internet days. In some ways it may have been more interesting and rewarding, though. I do usually try to point out any inaccuracies or anachronisms in my reviews, just so that future readers are aware.

      Since writing about these two books, I have also read and reviewed another one, Elizabeth the Beloved, which I really enjoyed!

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