Thursday, May 10, 2018

Queen of Scots

Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. John Guy. 2004. 608 pages. [Source: Library]

From the prologue: Around eight o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, when it was light enough to see without candles, Sir Thomas Andrews, sheriff of the county of Northamptonshire, knocked on a door.

From chapter one: Mary Stuart was born in the coldest of winters.

Premise/plot: Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart is a biography. Given that Mary, Queen of Scots' motto was 'In my end is my beginning,' it is fitting that it opens (and closes) with her last day. Chances are readers will come to the book with some idea about Mary's guilt or innocence; come with some idea about what kind of person Mary was. Will Guy's biography change your mind? Perhaps.

Was Mary guilty? Yes. Definitely. Guilty of marrying foolishly, recklessly. Guilty of making more than a few stupid decisions that would cost her her life. It is easy to look back on her life and pinpoint exactly where Mary made mistakes, ultimately fatal mistakes. It is easy to shout at Mary, DON'T DO IT. STOP. YOU'RE RUINING YOUR LIFE. THERE HAS TO BE ANOTHER WAY. But that's because we're far removed from the situation. We know the consequences. We can't walk in her shoes. We can't know what it was like to carry that weight, that burden, that responsibility.

But was Mary guilty of scheming and plotting her husband's death? That is much less certain. In fact, Guy spends more than a few chapters showing how all the so-called evidence against her was fabricated. The "casket letters" were manufactured "evidence" assembled by her enemies, assembled by men who were likely guilty themselves. At best, Guy shows that Mary was innocent of the worst charges against her: that she was in on the plot to kill her husband Darnley and that she was in on the plot to be abducted by Bothwell. At worst, Guy shows that there was no hard evidence, no real evidence, no persuasive evidence that PROVED beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was guilty.

For the record, you probably shouldn't marry someone who likely killed your husband and who definitely kidnapped you and raped you. It's likely that the marriage won't be a happy one. And it might even cost you your life.

Again, it is easy to judge Mary's decisions from afar. Her life is often seen in extremes. She's either an innocent pawn who was essentially powerless--in the hands of the power players around her either in France, Scotland, and England. OR she's seen as a guilty power-hungry whore who wanted--lusted--for more, more, more. Insert evil laugh here. She was always scheming and conniving and using her sexuality to make men do what she wanted. Guy's Mary is neither extreme. She's human.

My thoughts: I picked up Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart because I was watching Reign. (I don't recommend it overall.) One thing I knew for sure: the show was getting everything wrong. Not just a little wrong, not just a few liberties here and there, but every little thing and every big thing. It wasn't just the details they were getting wrong, but, I feared the personalities were wrong, wrong, super-wrong as well. (They were.)

I read reviews of several biographies. Many reviewers would point out the biases of the biographer. This person loves Mary and thinks she can do no wrong. This person hates Mary and thinks she can do no right. In all the descriptions of Mary none of them felt authentically human.

In his opinion, Mary's nemesis, her rival was NOT Queen Elizabeth, not directly. Instead her biggest enemy was William Cecil. (Cecil didn't even make it into the show Reign.)

I appreciate the work that went into this biography. He gives readers primary source material letting Mary speak in her own words. Letting those around Mary speak in their own words as well. He gives readers the ability to make their own minds up, to judge for themselves. And there are some areas of her life where we just don't know what she did or didn't know, or what she did or didn't feel. He doesn't force things into a neat and tidy little narrative.

The last chapter of the book is the epilogue where he talks about what happened after her death. He argues that even though Mary lost her life, she "won" the war in the end. It is HER son who ruled England. It is through Mary that all the monarchs have descended.

© 2018 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Elle said...

I watched Reign too because my weird obsession about learning the lives of past royals and was so disappointed in it. I agree that the show is just wrong from character personalities to clothing (one of the girls was wearing a skirt that was down to only her knees). I enjoy the fact that Guy lets reader decide if what Mary did was right or wrong. Specially about facts in time that we'll never likely know why certain decisions were made.

Joy Weese Moll said...

I watched a good bit of Reign. I was disappointed in the history and, then, decided to enjoy it as historical soap opera, and then got bored with the soap opera and quit watching before I got to the end.

Have you seen the BBC mini-series from 2004: Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot? That seemed to be a little more historically accurate.

Another good book about that time period (more about James I and VI than Mary, Queen of Scots) is Faith and Treason by Antonia Fraser.

Becky said...

I started Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot a couple of days after finishing Reign. Completely different. And I do think it had more of a connection to reality. It did not make me "like" James though! (I do adore Robert Carlyle!!!!)