Mini-reviews: Three books, three queens

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?

The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood

Sarah Gristwood is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. I have read one of her non-fiction books – Blood Sisters, a biography of several of the women involved in the Wars of the Roses – but this is the first of her novels that I’ve read. It’s set in the 16th century and the queen of the title is Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary is known to have had four ladies-in-waiting, young women her own age who were also all called Mary. They were the daughters of Scottish nobility – Mary Fleming, Mary Livingston, Mary Beaton and Mary Seton. Gristwood’s novel is written from the perspective of Mary Seton.

We first meet the four Marys as children of five or six years old. It’s 1548 and they are embarking on a voyage to France where the young queen will grow up and eventually marry the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. This forms the novel’s brief prologue and we hear very little about what actually happened in France, except when Seton looks back on the period later in her life:

Seton could tell tales of Diane’s banquets where the white wine was made cool with snow, of music in the pavilions by the river; a tennis court where the king played dressed in white silk. Of a park where special deer wore silver collars and ornamental canals were filled with fish; and of how, when the royal children came to stay, muzzled mastiffs and even a bear were brought into the nursery.

We join the Marys again in 1561 as they return to Scotland following the death of the queen’s husband. They have now grown into young women, all with very different personalities: Fleming pretty and regal, Livingston down to earth and flirtatious, Beaton quietly passionate, and Seton herself sensible and thoughtful. However, it would have been nice if, rather than the author just telling us what the Marys were like (by comparing them to the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, for example) she had done more to convey their personalities through their speech and actions instead.

The rest of the novel takes us through the years of Mary’s reign, a troubled time of religious conflict, disastrous marriages and controversial love affairs. It can’t have been easy for a young woman returning after a long absence in France to rule over a country she barely remembered:

It was as if the queen were groping to understand what to her – Seton thought with a chill – seemed almost to be an alien country.

The queen is lucky to have such loyal companions as the Marys to help her through these difficult years, but even they are unable to prevent her from making mistakes. She rarely confides in them or asks their advice, remaining a very lonely and isolated figure. Seen only through the eyes of Mary Seton, she never fully comes to life on the page and we never really know what she is thinking or feeling, but maybe that was intentional, to show the distance between the queen and her ladies, even after so many years together.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots is fascinating but has been written about many times before; the stories of Mary Seton, Beaton, Livingston and Fleming are much less well known and the hope of finding out more about them was what drew me to this novel. I can appreciate that there will not be a lot of information available on the lives of these four women, but I think Sarah Gristwood did a good job of working with what we do know to flesh out each character a little bit. I do wonder, though, whether the story might have been more compelling if it had been written in the first person rather than the third, or if each Mary had been given a chance to take a turn at narrating rather than just Seton.

I did have a lot of sympathy for Mary Seton; she is the one who remains in the queen’s service as the other three gradually marry and find freedom (or if not freedom exactly, at least a form of escape) away from court. Seton’s whole life has been devoted to the queen and she gradually becomes torn between loyalty to her mistress, frustration at her lack of influence and a longing to break the bond and live her own life at last.

Although there was too much distance in this novel for me to say that I really enjoyed it (distance between one character and another, as well as distance between the characters and the reader) it was still good to have an opportunity to meet the Four Marys and to add to my knowledge of this period of history.

Thanks to Endeavour Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

An Accidental Tragedy: The Life Of Mary, Queen Of Scots by Roderick Graham

An Accidental Tragedy The death of Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in 1587, could certainly be considered a tragedy. Was it also an accidental one? Could Mary’s fate have been avoided if she had only been a different type of person and if she had made different choices in life? This is the starting point for Roderick Graham’s 2009 biography of one of Scotland’s most fascinating monarchs, which claims ‘neither to blacken her character by portraying her as a murderess of husbands, nor to sanctify her as the lonely champion of her faith, but to recount the circumstances which formed her character and to explain the events which determined her fate’.

The book begins with Mary’s birth at Linlithgow Palace in 1542 and her rapid accession to the throne when her father, James V of Scotland, died just six days later. Mary was not Scotland’s first child monarch – James V himself and all of the four kings before him also came to the throne at an early age – and the Scottish people had become used to long periods of regency. As Graham explains, this led to an increase in the power and independence of the nobility and caused division and a lack of unity.

After a marriage treaty between Mary and Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward, was rejected by the Scots, the five-year-old queen was sent to France where she would eventually marry the French king’s heir, the Dauphin Francis. Mary grew up in France rather than Scotland and she and Francis were strongly influenced by her mother’s relatives, the Guises. This meant that when Mary returned to Scotland to rule in 1561 following her husband’s death, she had very little knowledge of the country of her birth. At a time of increasing religious and political conflict among the Scottish noblemen a strong leader was needed.

Roderick Graham does a good job of showing how poorly equipped Mary was for her role as Queen of Scots and how she was unable to provide the sort of leadership the country required. Despite the presence of three influential women in her life – her mother, Mary of Guise; the Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici; and the King of France’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers – Mary appeared to learn very little from any of them regarding the management of court intrigue and politics. The years that followed her return to Scotland were dominated by murders, plots, rebellions and two disastrous marriages, the first to Lord Darnley and the second to the Earl of Bothwell, finally ending in her abdication and imprisonment in England.

I found it interesting that Graham had chosen to write a book about someone for whom he seemed to have so little admiration, sympathy or liking. He never misses an opportunity to compare Mary with that other queen south of the border – Elizabeth I – and to point out how much stronger, cleverer and wittier the Queen of England was. In contrast, he paints a picture of Mary as immature, incapable of making good decisions and driven by passion and emotion. I’m not sure how fair or unfair his treatment of Mary is, but despite his preference for Elizabeth, he still made me feel sad for Mary as her life drew closer to its tragic end.

An Accidental Tragedy is the first book I’ve read that is specifically about Mary, Queen of Scots. Of course, I’ve come across her in other non-fiction books about the Tudor/Elizabethan period and she has been a secondary character in some of the historical fiction novels I’ve read, but this is the first time I’ve read a comprehensive biography of her entire life. I was particularly interested in reading about this period in Scotland’s history because my favourite historical fiction series, the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, is set during the first part of Mary’s reign, but this just added another layer of interest to what was already a fascinating and very readable biography.

If anyone has any other biographies of Mary to recommend, please let me know. I would love to read another one.