Mary, Queen of Scots, after Clouet, c1560. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.
I really don’t know what I think about Mary, Queen of Scots as on one hand, I deeply appreciate the desperate and tragic romance of her life but on the other, well, I just can’t help thinking of her as a ridiculous and weak minded incompetent who wasted every opportunity given to her. However, to be fair to poor old Mary Stuart, it’s pretty hard to live up to all the obvious comparisons to her cousin, Elizabeth I and I think we’d all flounder if we were expected to measure up to Gloriana herself.
Crikey, just imagine it. Let’s face it, it’d be pretty darn hard NOT to look somewhat intellectually challenged if your nearest peer is Elizabeth Tudor so perhaps we should cut Mary, Queen of Scots SOME slack here as I’m sure most of us would cope just as badly with the obstacles that cruel fate (and it does seem to have bestowed with one hand and taken away with the other) put in her silk shod way.
That aside, most contemporary books that deal with Mary Stuart give themselves over to barely disguised panegyrics, emphasising her feminine charms and minimising the essential incompetence and stubborn minded foggy thinking that led to her downfall. Erm, okay, I’m really not that much of a fan am I? Which is probably why I was so pleased to recently read two books that also view Mary in a rather negative light and make no attempt to cover up her antics with a rosy tinted cloud of romance and girlish exuberance.
The first was Roderick Graham’s biography An Accidental Tragedy: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots, which attempted to look at Mary’s life as a series of unfortunate accidents and bad decisions that ultimately led her to the block. Although Graham clearly has little time for Mary’s intellectual prowess and at times indulges himself with the occasional snide comment on her abilities and lovestruck behaviour around the utterly vile Lord Darnley, he is an honest and clear headed writer who is ultimately fair to his complex subject.
Whereas Antonia Fraser clearly had a whopping great girl crush on Mary when she was writing her biography about her, Roderick Graham appears entirely impervious to her charms and instead gives the reader a warts and all portrayal of a woman who was capable of both inspiring intense loyalty from those close to her and also carelessly creating huge rifts between herself and people she should have been trying to get on side. While Fraser focusses on the ways that Mary, with all of her famed beauty and charm, fit into the glittering pantheon of strong and rather glamorous mid sixteenth century women rulers (both official and unofficial), Graham instead constantly reiterates all the ways that she didn’t live up to their standards, even going so far at various times as to point out just how Elizabeth I, Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de’ Medici would have behaved in the exact same situation that Mary managed to royally mess up, mainly by placing too much reliance on her looks and personal charms rather than the essential ruthlessness and cold, hard headed logic that her contemporaries were so skilled in utilising. He notes that ‘When cornered in debate she always referred to her parentage and royal descent. No political or theological lessons had been learned from her Guise uncles, the careful tutelage of Diane de Poitiers in female guile was forgotten and the court diplomacy of Catherine de Medici was ignored.‘
The ultimate result is an extremely readable and fascinating biography that lays Mary Stuart bare as both a woman and a queen with all of her flaws, foibles and fascinations and also the victim of her own passive inability to effectively cope with events that swiftly moved out of her control.
However, as Roderick Graham points out at the end of his book, Mary had a huge fan in her descendant Queen Victoria, who was completely in love with her romantic and tragic Stuart ancestry and who even unsuccessfully petitioned Pope Leo XIII in 1887 to have Mary canonised, noting at the time that she was glad to be descended from Mary and ‘thankful she had no connection with Queen Elizabeth‘.
The other book was the novel The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas, which I’ve wanted to read for ages although I was put off by the floramancy (telling fortunes with flowers) angle, which seemed just a bit too woo for my tastes. However, I’m glad that I gave it a chance as, although it started off really slowly, I ended up really enjoying this book.
The Flower Reader is set in the early years of Mary Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland as the widowed Queen of France and is a breathless and genuinely gripping account of a young half French heiress’ (who is Mary’s cousin and sometime childhood nemesis albeit in a wrong side of blanket way) attempt to get justice for her murdered husband, protect the silver casket which is the final legacy of Marie de Guise for her daughter and also navigate the distinctly brutal and choppy seas of the young Queen’s court. As usual I don’t want to give anything away, especially as this is something of a whodunit, but Loupas handles it with incredible skill while at the same time creating an unforgettable and vibrant world redolent of both luxury and terrible danger.
The brilliant depiction of Mary, Queen of Scots in The Flower Reader is really interesting as Loupas veers completely clear of the more usual skittish, charming girl queen trope and instead creates a wilful, spoiled, malicious little monster with a careless disregard for everyone and everything but her own whims and desires and very few redeeming qualities. I must admit that I revelled in this spiteful, shrewish, heartless but dazzlingly beauteous version of Mary, lounging pouting and petulant on her throne like Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland and giving her formidable cousin Elizabeth a definite run for her money in the ‘getting jealous of male courtiers giving attention to anyone other than herself’ stakes. It was quite astounding and also rather glorious.
I wouldn’t recommend The Flower Reader to the more hardcore Mary, Queen of Scots fan girls out there as they almost certainly wouldn’t enjoy the way their heroine is depicted but if you fancy a refreshing and highly entertaining look at a much covered theme then this may very well be your cup of whisky.