I (finally!) finished this book, although unfortunately not in time for Women’s History Month. I found it very interesting. Fair warning though: this book is enormous. As in, if you bring it on an airplane, the complete strangers sitting on either side of you will comment on it and ask why you are reading such a large book. (My answer? What else are you going to do on a long plane ride?)
I have been interested in Scottish history for awhile now, and this was a period I didn’t know much about. The book contained a lot of great detail, but I should say up front that it is very sympathetic to Queen Mary. If you are familiar with the time period, this might occasionally seem strange, because some historical figures who are generally well thought of are portrayed negatively. I thought it made a lot of sense since the story is mostly told from Mary’s point of view, so naturally her political enemies wouldn’t look like heroes.
The book begins with Mary’s birth and covers most of her life in detail. She was raised in France by her mother’s relatives, married the dauphin, and was briefly the queen of France as well as Scotland. Her position was always very precarious in Scotland. First she was an infant monarch threatened by old rival families who wanted the throne. When she returned to Scotland as a young widow, she was a Catholic monarch in a country that had mostly become Protestant. Her marriages further damaged her standing in Scotland. Eventually, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her son and took refuge in England. It is a complicated and tragic story.
The main thing I look for in a historical novel is accuracy, and Margaret George has definitely done her homework. The novel contains an impressive amount of historical detail. There are a lot of gaps in what we know about Mary, Queen of Scots, and George manages to fill them in a way that is both plausible and original. I was completely surprised by her take on Lord Darnley’s murder, for example, but it turned out that it was based on a historian’s theory from 1930. While it might not be the simplest explanation, it certainly was dramatic, and it also fit all of the known facts. George explains these and other decisions in her afterword, which is a must-read and gave me a whole new respect for the novel.
I would definitely consider re-reading this novel, so I am giving it four and a half stars. If you’re interested in Scottish history or the 16th century (which I think is a very interesting and eventful time period), you would probably enjoy this book. ★★★★1/2