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14 April 2009

Ghosts of Quartiers Past

As I have temporarily run out of history to read, I've side-stepped into historical fiction. Ever since Joseph Fiennes portrayed Robert Dudley in Elizabeth: Is She or Isn't She, Will She or Won't She?, he has been one of my favourite historical characters and so I ate up Philippa Gregory's book The Virgin's Lover in which Dudley and Princess Elizabeth (later QE1) frolic and fall in love and, Gregory suggests, may even have had to make use of some very rudimentary prophylactics. 

I've read several of Gregory's other books including her latest, The Other Queen, which tells the tale of Mary, Queen of Scots in the late 1560s and early 1570s while she is being "hosted" (i.e. imprisoned) in the house of the Earl of Shrewsbury. As she is half-French and was brought up as a French princess, she cannot 'elp but être très séduisante and poor Shrewsbury--and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, property tycoon, ancestor of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (and Princess Di) and arriviste to end all arrivistes--cannot 'elp but fall for 'er Gallic charms. The book was entertaining enough but I always came down on Elizabeth's side when it came to Mary vs. Elizabeth; maybe it's because I'm English, maybe it's because she won or maybe it's because Mary is always portrayed as the silly flirt who kept falling in and out of love and lust without the slightest bit of foresight. 

Gregory depicts her as a fierce, strong woman who is desperate for her freedom, more than anything else (more even than to see her son again) whose fate was inevitable simply because she desired her liberty too much not to get caught up with the Duke of Norfolk, Ridolfi, Babington and all the other plotters who sought so often to use her. Some of the narrative devices grate, though; Mary, Bess and Shrewsbury all take turns to dictate but Gregory constantly drops the little turns of phrase she denotes as being characteristic of each voice (like Mary's frequent self reassurances that, "I was a Princess of France, I am a Queen Dowager of France, I am the Queen of Scotland and the only true heir to the throne of England..." And I will have my vengeance, she doesn't add, but when she starts on these reveries, I can't help but hear Russell Crowe).

Alison Weir is actually a proper historian. Well, she has written historical biographies (including an excellent one of Eleanor of Aquitaine--another Strong Woman--which I've just finished reading and which made me appreciate the striking similarities between Henry II and Eleanor (and their children Henry, Richard I and John I, the eldest of whom died shortly before his father, which meant the second son became king--the spare became the heir) and Henry VII, his wife Elizabeth of York (and their children Arthur (who died just before his father) and Henry (who became Henry VIII) and some girls)). 

I was reading about a new bio of Lady Jane Grey and her lesser known younger sisters Catherine and Mary on an amusing (and occasionally educational) blog called Raucous Royals, but it's only out in hardback at the moment and I refuse to pay £20, so instead I bought Weir's historical novel Innocent Traitor, which also tells the tail of such woe that is that of Lady Jane and her Dudley-o, thanks to the scheming of her mother (who is daughter to Charles Brandon, Duke of Phwoar, no less!) and father. 

I was interested to note that before they inherited the Dukedom of Suffolk, Jane's parents were the Marquis and Marchioness of Dorset and there are plenty of references to Dorset House. As I live close to Dorset Street, it suddenly occurred to me that Jane may have spent much of her youth in a house near to my current flat; her sister Catherine, certainly, was born at Dorset House. Dorset House exists no more and former its location (beyond "Westminster") doesn't seem too easy to track down on the intertubes but according to this site, at least, Dorset House did indeed once stand on Dorset Street. Jane, is intelligent, scholarly and strong willed, like many of the women about whom Weir writes (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of Castile, Elizabeth I), she is contradictory--precocious and sharp and yet a pawn in the schemes of others. Born way before her time. Very sympathetic. And it makes an engaging story, even if it is only a novel.


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