'Remember that the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England.' These words of defiance, spoken by Mary Stuart at her trial provide an inkling into the style and content of this sumptuous book. Susan Watkins has employed a wealth of primary and secondary sources in both English and French to produce an enthralling biography of the Queen of Scots. The straightforwardness of the narrative makes the book an ideal introduction to Mary's life. Mindful of the newcomer to the subject, the author includes several genealogical trees to illustrate the Queen's position within the reigning Houses of Stewart, Tudor, and Valois, and the ducal House of Guise to which her French-born mother belonged. At the same time, the vivid, but never florid, detail of Ms Watkins' prose will delight even the most widely read Scottish history enthusiast.
This is not, and does not claim to be, an analytical biography. The author offers no fresh scholarly insight into the life of the 'daughter of debate', she whom 'eke discord doth soe" among historians more than four centuries after Elizabeth Tudor signed her death warrant. Many readers will wish to pursue Mary Stuart through the pages of Antonia Fraser's classic study of the Scottish sovereign and the more recent "In My End is My Beginning: A Biography of Mary Queen of Scots" by James MacKay. However, what makes Susan Watkins' book stand out from other biographies, what gives it an appeal to all with an interest in Mary Stuart irrespective of their degree of knowledge is her development of the Queen's perception of a theatrum mundi: 'the theatre of the world'.
The author notes how art has cast Mary as 'tragedienne, a heroine and...the subject of romance', a figure granted encore after encore in novels, poetry, drama, opera, and on the cinema screen. Ms Watkins returns to the source of this alchemy in Mary Stuart's own understanding of her world as a theatre. Her constant focus is on the contrasting backdrops to Mary's rôle on the international stage, enlivened by a cast of jewel-coloured characters all of whom are out-dazzled by the central figure of the crowned infant, the perfumed beauty of the Valois court, Scotland's Jezebel, and at last the martyr of Fotheringhay.
The text is skillfully interspaced with almost two hundred colour plates that convey the reader through scenes of courtly culture, the minutiae of royal nursery life, and political mayhem and murder. Ms Watkins has reproduced the choicest pictures from public and private collections in Scotland, France, and England, including contemporary portraits of Mary Stuart and the major players in the drama of her life. We glimpse her fabulous jewels, vibrant heraldic arms, the emblems of her religious faith, examples of her skilled needlework, and intriguing manuscripts. However, it is the stunning photography of Mark Fiennes, renowned for his studies of architecture, interiors, landscapes, and gardens, that gives this book a sense of place not to be found in any other biography of the Queen.
Page by page, Fiennes' photography shifts the scene from Linlithgow and Stirling, sombre residences of the Scots rulers, to the elegant palaces and fairy-tale châteaux of the Valois dynasty into which the young sovereign married. Fiennes shows us the stark beauty of Edinburgh to which Mary returned a widow and left with the label of whore before embarking on her long progress from one stately English prison to the next. At length we reach the poignant images of fields of Scottish thistles where once stood Fotheringhay Castle, the blood-stained location of the execution of an aging Queen. Readers who enjoy their Scottish history blended with Fiennes' photography will revel in another of his collections, "Past and Present Scotland, a New Perspective".
This new biography of Mary Queen of Scots brings together two complimentary talents to produce a spectacular large-format coffee-table book. Buy this volume and you will visit the Stuart stage again and again, each time remembering the wideness, the spaciousness of 'the theatre of the world'.