It’s a well-established fact that I am an absolute sucker for a book about tragic royal women- this isn’t even the first book I’ve reviewed about actual rival queens. I’ve long enjoyed reading about Mary, Queen of Scots, beginning with Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography ten years ago and Jane Dunn’s biography of both women. It’s safe to say that we’re still kind of obsessed with these two queens: often presented as two sides of the same coin, yet destined to be pitted against each other- because of religion, their politicians and history.
Kate Williams’ biography is looking at this rivalry in a way that feels sympathetic to both women, acknowledging the way they became caught up in a system that was bigger than them and that was tied to ancient ideas of what it was to be a woman. Mary was the beautiful, sophisticated queen virtually from birth, brought up to be the Queen of France, but thrown into the lions den of the hyper-masculine court of Scotland; Elizabeth surviving a precarious child- and early adulthood to ultimately triumph, but always with the hint of illegitimacy hanging over her. Completely different women, both bucked the system as best they could, with obviously varying degrees of success.
I enjoyed the way that Williams weaves the two stories together, comparing and contrasting the way both women navigated court and their advisors (some of those advisors *cough* Cecil *cough* do not come out of this as well as they do traditionally- and this seems entirely fair.) I also feel that the author brings a more feminist viewing of some of Mary’s more controversial decisions- such as the marriage to the man who murdered her husband and later raped her- subtly acknowledging that she is writing in a post-#MeToo world, when we look at the Scots queen differently to the historians of the past. It’s an important fact to acknowledge in a time when it feels like the world is moving on and beginning to understand the effects of the sort of emotional, physical and sexual abuse Mary suffered at the hands of people she believed were her allies and advisors.
Mary has been portrayed in the past as a flighty flirt, only powered by her desire and rash decision making. In contrast, Elizabeth has been flinty, devoid of femininity. In this book, they feel real- desperate even, at times. They feel like women struggling to fight for their place in difficult times, held back by the patriarchy and doing their best to keep their heads above water- or at least away from the chopping block.
FORMAT: Hardback book, borrowed from the library