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.

Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood

Blood Sisters Blood Sisters is a non-fiction book which looks at the lives of seven women who all played an important part in the period of history known as The Wars of the Roses or the Cousins’ War – the conflict between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, two branches of the English royal family. These seven women are listed below:

* Margaret of Anjou (Marguerite), Queen to Henry VI

* Cecily Neville, the mother of two Kings of England: Edward IV and Richard III

* Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to Edward IV and mother of the ‘Princes in the Tower’.

* Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and Richard III and wife to the Duke of Burgundy.

* Anne Neville, wife of Richard III and daughter of the Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker)

* Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII).

* Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter and Henry VII’s wife.

Notice that I’ve defined these seven women by their relationships to the men, the Kings, and it would have been almost impossible not to do that, as their connections to the Plantagenet and Tudor Kings of England are the reasons they are still remembered today. But in this book, Sarah Gristwood shows that each of them also had an interesting story of her own and was historically important in her own right. Rather than devoting one section of the book to each woman and telling their stories separately, she weaves them together which makes sense considering that some of the women were related and several of them did meet or interact with the others in some way.

While Blood Sisters was very compelling and readable non-fiction, I have to admit I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know about most of the women. The lives of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort were covered in another book I’ve read, The Women of the Cousins’ War, and a lot of the same information appears here too – though I suppose there’s a limit to how much information is actually available. Of the seven featured in this book, Margaret of Burgundy was the one I previously knew the least about and so I was particularly interested in reading about her.

As well as telling us about the major historical events of the period, Gristwood also gives us a lot of information to help us understand what daily life was like for these women: for example, records of household accounts, and descriptions of clothes worn at coronations or pageants and the dishes served at banquets. I also enjoyed reading about the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and I appreciate the fact that Gristwood presented some of the different theories and possibilities rather than just blaming Richard III! A lot of attention is also given to the stories of the various Yorkist pretenders to the throne who caused so many problems for Henry VII during his reign, especially Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger son of Edward IV.

It’s frustrating that so much of the information we have about this period comes from the work of Thomas More and others who were writing during the Tudor period and so were likely to be biased, but Gristwood does take care to point out when something may not be completely accurate and when we need to use some caution. She explains which of her sources may have been unreliable or may have had their own reasons for wanting to portray a person or event in a certain way.

I would recommend Blood Sisters to anyone interested in learning more about this period from a female perspective and it’s also an ideal book for readers like myself who don’t often read non-fiction but want to build on the knowledge they’ve already gained through reading historical fiction.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley