Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mary, Queen of Scots - Antonia Fraser

I have to admit I approached this book from a fairly anti-Mary perspective. I've always been firmly in the Elizabeth camp, and in comparison, Mary has always seemed rather like a spoilt and unstable bimbo who bats her eyelashes to get her own way, and then peevishly blows her husbands up when thwarted. In the event, while my prejudices were certainly not affirmed here, they did help me to maintain some perspective in the face of what turned out to be a very partisan book - Fraser is very pro-Mary indeed.

On the whole, this is very good popular history - the research is thorough, and many of the sources are examined both for facts and for trustworthiness. Of the myths that have built up about Mary's life over the centuries, Fraser has no hesitation in debunking the more ludicrous ones, and provides good evidence to support much of her analysis. Her conclusions about Darnley's murder and the Babington plot are hard to dispute, and largely puts Mary in the clear with regard to her actual purported crimes. It's the assessment of Mary's personality and the reasons (or excuses) for her behaviour that has me putting on my sceptic's hat.

While the history is solid, Fraser's style tends towards the chatty rather than the drily academic. Of course, this makes for a very lively and readable account, but it also allows for a lot of emotive language to be used, exposing the author's prejudices. It's quite noticeable that any characters that are nice to Mary are given much more positive character sketches than the ones who are against her. Fraser also picks and chooses which era's value-sets to judge her characters by, depending on how she wants them portrayed - for example, Mary is judged by today's standards as a sweet, kind and merciful monarch, whereas the strong-willed Bess of Hardwicke is written off using the Tudor view of her as an unnaturally masculine harridan. A lot of the evidence presented against Mary's enemies is anecdotal and, from looking at the references, much of it appears to be based on secondary rather than primary sources.

Despite all of Fraser's apologetics, it's clear that Mary, alongside her many admirable traits, was eminently unqualified to be a 16th-century monarch. To use the words of 1066 And All That, she was a Weak King - she may have been a very nice person and unjustly used as a political pawn for much of her life, but that's no real excuse for forgiving her failings as a queen. Even from this biased account, you can see that the only time she started behaving like a real queen was at her trial; while this was sufficient to save her reputation in the face of history, unfortunately it can't change the fact that, as a queen, she was pretty crap.



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