I have read three older historical fiction novels recently which I’ve decided to write about all in one post to avoid boring those of you who don’t share my interest in ‘kings and queens’ novels – and also because I’ve fallen hopelessly behind with my reviews again and need to start catching up!
The first book I’m going to mention is With All My Heart by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1951), which tells the story of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who comes to England as the wife of King Charles II. Although I’ve read a lot of other novels set during the reign of Charles II, this is the first one that specifically focuses on Catherine. Catherine is portrayed very sympathetically throughout this novel, beginning with her early days in England, trying to adjust to a climate and culture so different from Portugal’s, and later, when she discovers that she will have to share her husband with his many mistresses.
There is some overlap between this book and the last one I read by Barnes – Lady on the Coin – which is about Frances Stuart, one of the other women at the court of Charles II, but the two novels have a different feel, probably due to the very different personalities and positions of their heroines. One notable difference between the two books is that while major events such as the plague and the Fire of London are only touched on lightly in Lady on the Coin, they are given much more attention in this book and that made this one a more interesting read.
The second queen to feature in my recent reading was only queen for nine days: she is, of course, Lady Jane Grey and her story is told in Destiny’s Lady by Maureen Peters. The book takes us through Jane’s life from her childhood in the household of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour to her acceptance of the crown, her imprisonment and finally her beheading in 1554. Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon, is very much the villain of the novel, but remembering that it was published in 1972, I think that was the accepted view of Frances at the time – it only seems to be more recently that historians have started reassessing what we know of her again.
I have read a few other books by Peters and I complained that they were too short to do the subject justice. This is another short one, but as Jane Grey’s life was sadly also very short, I felt that the length of the book was adequate for everything that needed to be said. The pacing is better and there is not the same sense of struggling to squeeze a person’s entire lifetime into two hundred pages. Having said that, I would only really recommend Destiny’s Lady if you just want a brief overview of Jane’s life or are looking for a light and undemanding read set in this period. If you would prefer a more in-depth novel about Jane, you will need to look elsewhere.
Finally, I read The Queen’s Caprice by Marjorie Bowen, a book about a queen of Scotland this time. The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a fascinating, eventful one and always a good subject for historical fiction. Bowen’s novel is a straightforward fictional biography of Mary, covering the period from her return to Scotland in 1561 following the death of her husband, the King of France, and her imprisonment at Lochleven. In between, there’s always something happening: a murder, a plot, a rebellion or a disastrous marriage or two!
This is an interesting look at Mary’s life, although as it was published in 1933 I think the style will be too dated for some readers and it’s probably not the best book to read as a first introduction as Bowen does seem to assume we have some background knowledge of the period. It isn’t a very flattering portrayal of Mary either – as the title suggests, a lot is made of her capriciousness and her tendency to think with her heart rather than her head, making poor decisions regardless of the consequences. I was never sure whether our sympathies were supposed to be with Mary or with her ambitious half-brother, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. I’ve read a few other books by Marjorie Bowen and while I thought this one was worth reading, it isn’t one of my favourites.
Have you read any books about Catherine of Braganza, Lady Jane Grey or Mary, Queen of Scots? Which would you recommend?