I’ve never read a nonfiction book about Mary Stuart, and the last (and, I think, only) fiction book I’ve read about her was back in elementary school, when I read her book from the Royal Diaries series. (I think it was called Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country or something like that, and I remember not liking it very much.) What I knew about her going into this book was taken almost entirely from Elizabeth-centric history books, which obviously don’t always show Mary in the best light. I’ve always been staunchly Team Elizabeth, but I decided it was time I gave Mary a fair shot. (confession a: I mostly decided to start reading this book now because I have become obsessed with the CW show Reign, which I will discuss further at the end of the review because oh my god, you guys, and confession b: I was tempted to write this review as a fourteen-year-old Reign fan who was OUTRAGED at all the things that were missing from the show. But I digress)
Mary Stuart is one of the sadder historical figures I’ve come across. She was a queen almost from birth, but had to be taken out of her home country after only a few years to avoid being killed. She was brought up in France, married a French prince, and felt more at home there than she ever did in Scotland (even later in life, she often signed her name as “Marie” instead of Mary). When her first husband died and she returned home, things went okay for a while, and Mary actually showed signs of being a competent ruler, and then everything went swiftly and horribly wrong. Her later life seems to be comprised of a series of grave errors in judgment (Bothwell, anyone?) that directly resulted in her being imprisoned for almost twenty years and then executed. She didn’t ever get a chance to really do anything on her own, and instead spent her life just reacting to what others did. A study of her life presents a lot of interesting what ifs: what if she and Elizabeth had actually been able to arrange a meeting early in their reigns, as Mary tried for years to arrange? What if she had displayed a little more common sense in her marriages to Darnely and Bothwell? What if, upon being forced to abdicate and flee Scotland, Mary had gone to France instead of (stupidly) blundering into Elizabeth’s territory? Unfortunately, there’s no way to answer any of these questions, but it’s at least interesting to consider how history would have been changed if Mary hadn’t had such terrible and consistent bad luck.
Fraser’s book does a good job of considering these what-if scenarios, and also proves that Mary had the potential to be a great ruler, possibly even greater than Elizabeth. The history is comprehensive, clear, detailed (she spends an entire chapter just examining the infamous Casket Letters), and balanced: she isn’t afraid to point out when Mary did something extremely reckless or stupid, and although she can be kind of a dick to Elizabeth, she does point out that there wasn’t much else the Queen of England could have done. Mary spent the majority of her life being fucked over by various people and circumstances, and ultimately she’s more interesting as a figure of speculation than an actual historical figure. The book is interesting; Mary, not so much.
Okay, let’s talk about Reign. Guys. GUYS. This is all real. Some genius at the CW decided that it would be an awesome idea to make a show about fifteen-year-old Mary’s life in France before she married Francis, and it’s basically if Gossip Girl did a Renaissance Faire episode after skimming a Tudor history book. There is, I shit you not, a completely made-up character named Sebastian (his nickname is Bash, I’m 100% serious) so we can have a love triangle; Mary’s four attendants have been renamed Kenna, Aiylee, Grier, and Lola; and there’s a whole subplot about murderous pagans who live in the woods outside the castle. In 16th-century France. It’s the best show I’ve ever seen and I hope it lasts ten seasons and you all need to watch it immediately. And I’m positive that I couldn’t enjoy its batshit disregard for historical fact nearly as much if I hadn’t just read this book. So in that respect, this was well worth the read
Verdict: three out of five stars