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on 29 March 2006
I enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. The book is a balanced portrait of a very determined and intelligent woman who became rich and powerful in her own right, during a period when very few women were allowed to own any property. Her spirit and perseverance come through the pages and one cannot help but admire Bess of Hardwick. Ms Lovell balances the domestic life of Bess with the political upheavals she lived through seamlessly. This is a brilliant read, I know I will read it again and again.
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VINE VOICEon 18 May 2008
This is the third biography I have read by Mary S Lovell (the first two being the Mitford Sisters, and Jane Digby: A Scandalous Life). Both were excellent so I had high hopes of this one and was not disappointed. Lovell writes in a very accessible way despite cramming her books with well-researched detail.

Bess is a fascinating subject. Although she accumulated her wealth partly through a series of good marriages, she was a woman who had extraordinary business acumen for her time, and who believed in fighting for her rights. We are also given interesting insights into the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots (one of Bess's husbands, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was responsible for Mary's security for 15 years of her imprisonment). Elizabeth I is another of the principal characters as Bess was part of her close entourage at an early age and they remained lifelong friends. And I learnt something of the life of Arbella, Bess's granddaughter, who has been the subject of a recent biography by another writer.

If you are interested in the Tudor period, in strong women, and in seriously good biographies, this book is for you. Superb.
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on 21 April 2010
Well - I romped through this! This is the 2nd of 3 historical books I've bought recently which has been an absolute joy and a seamless read. Very informative, but without being dry and dotted with footnotes that interrupt the narrative. (A lot of historical writers please take note!) It is a balanced, well-researched book about an interesting woman. Bess may well have been ahead of her time with her property and financial management, but I think she would hold her own very well in this day and age!

Highly recommend this book as an insight into the Elizabethan age as a whole.
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on 3 September 2010
A highly detailed, accurate (a fair assumption from Lovell's thorough research) and brilliantly written book about the fascinating life of Bess - who started from very little, but built up her extensive empire through four marriages and close ties with the Tudor monarchs. From start to finish it is a superb read, the combination of the author's research - debunking several old assumptions, and commenting on other views of previous biographers - together with the writing style and the subject at hand, come together to form an excellent read. Whether you are aware of just how connected, influential and important Bess of Hardwick was during her lifetime and with the royal court (Bess was alive for the entire reign of Elizabeth I and a close friend); the buildings and estates she created; or whether you have an interest in Tudor history - this book will not disappoint.
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on 4 November 2007
This is a superbly researched book. Rarely do Tudor women outside the circles of royalties leave a mark on history after 400 years but Bess makes a great subject and is a particularly fascinating lady given her ordinary background. Her marriages are of particular interest and her links to royalty. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in any history, this lady is a meaty subject for those long winter evenings.
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on 1 July 2011
I didn't know much about Bess of Hardwick before I read this book, but certainly feel that I know a great deal more about her now. As one of the most powerful women, and one of the richest landowners in Elizabethan England, the story of Bess also involves some of the key characters of Elizabeth's government such as Lord Burley and the Earl of Leicester, as well as Queen Elizabeth herself and Mary, Queen of Scots.

I certainly learnt a lot about the lifestyle of the wealthy classes from this book and was particularly struck by how often they moved about the country. The author has also, without a doubt, spent a lot of time researching her subject and looking for contemporary sources for the book.

Although the book is a very interesting read, and, one to be recommended for those interested in Elizabethan England, I have two or maybe three criticisms. The first is that there does not appear to be very much written about her earlier life, indeed she gets through the first three husbands quite quickly considering that she is nearly forty by the time the third one dies. This leads onto the second criticism; there is too much of the book dedicated to the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, for whom the Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess's fourth husband, was responsible over a 15 year period prior to her execution. Whilst it was undoubtedly a key part of Bess's life, and was probably one of the causes of her estrangement from the Earl of Shrewsbury, it is a part of the book that seems to be more about the Scottish Queen and Bess's husband than Bess herself. In fact it appears that Bess spent a lot of the time of the imprisonment avoiding Tutbury and much of this section seems to be a list of places that the queen was moved between which became quite dull after a while. My final, slight, problem with the book is that it is obvious that the author admires her subject. One can get the impression that Bess was as close to perfect as possible, which, considering that she managed to make some very good deals in order to increase her wealth is not at all likely - for her to succeed in business she must have had a ruthless streak in her. I would just like a slightly more balanced appraisal of Bess, I did like her, but she can't have been that nice - nobody is!

However, criticisms apart, I did enjoy the book, I learnt a lot about an historical figure that I didn't know about before and it was an interesting and easy read (if a bit long!).
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on 14 October 2006
A thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish. Mrs Lovell captures the imagination and transports you to the Tudor age with ease, Bess's story is easy to follow in chronological order and it's interesting to note Bess is portrayed in a more favourable light than by previous biographers. Will read it again and look forward to Mrs Lovell's future books.
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on 30 August 2010
A great read, throughly researched and dispels many myths about Bess. Having recently visited Hardwick Hall, it was great to read more about her, and learn so much more about life in 16th century.
if you like stories about successful, tenacious women, read this!
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I came to this book fresh after reading David Durant's biography from the 1970s - see my separate Amazon review.

Despite the effusive opening blurbs; despite the list of books also written by Mary S. Lovell (and to style herself with that middle initial must surely mean she is American); despite the dedication to Debo, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, my heart sank upon seeing the first chapter entitled `Merrie England', where the opening words are "Little Bess Hardwick" and reference is made to her being "a babe in arms". What had I bought? I was sure I was not going to like this book, but how wrong I was! And no, Mary Lovell is not an American.

In her introduction, Lovell states that, "much of what had already been written about Bess concerned her life from middle age onwards ... I decided ... to concentrate as far as possible on the early, unknown and unexplored parts of her life ... It is no exaggeration to say that there are more surviving documents concerning Bess and her connections" than have previously been analysed. She has endeavoured to counter those "many previous biographers (mostly male) [who] portrayed Bess as a hard and scheming woman."

It quickly becomes apparent that Lovell is not a professional historian, but rather a professional writer whose enthusiasm for her subject is made plain in her interesting introduction. Lovell freely admits to the limitations of her expertise (not feeling able to dedicate herself fully to answering whether Sir William Cavendish was an embezzler of state funds) and to the limits of the evidence (querying why Sir john Thynne should go out of his way to help Bess through opposing a bill in parliament against her); and there are in the narrative a fair share of `it is likely' and `it is probable'.

In addition, I was extremely pleased to read the following: -

"Previous biographers have speculated that it was at this very early period in her life that Bess made a conscious decision to marry William Cavendish in order to `build a dynasty'. Young women in Bess's day were taught, and were inclined by social mores, to be submissive, and as yet Bess could have had no idea whether she was fertile, or could bear healthy children. It therefore seems highly unlikely that a teenager with such a limited education as Bess had received so far would have been capable of the necessary self-analysis to have reached such a well thought-out and fully-developed ambition."

In one short series of sentences, Lovell demolishes those biases towards the strong and determined Bess that bedevils other biographies, and Lovell here demonstrates an impartiality to her subject that is refreshing and re-assuring. She may not be a professional historian - many of her sources are to secondary works - yet she has an objectivity that other biographers of Bess have shown not to possess. Lovell's honesty is also shown in the supposed "clashes of temperament" between Bess and Queen Elizabeth written about by other biographers: Lovell writes that, "though I searched diligently for evidence of this, I could find none whatsoever. Nor are any sources cited for this conjecture by previous biographers." Moreover, Bess's warm and passionate side "has been previously overlooked. As has her warm affection."

Perhaps the defining moment in Lovell's narrative that demonstrates Bess's steely determination is in her battle for her one-third dower rights following the death of her first husband. Her family circumstances meant that she was not in a strong position, but her persistent nature allied to a sense of injustice strengthened her mettle. Lovell is also clear in demonstrating that Bess planned well in advance the marriage between her daughter and Charles Stuart, despite what Bess protested to the queen.

Another welcome departure from other interpretations is that Lovell does not trace the estrangement between Bess and her fourth husband directly to this marriage. But I could not help feeling that Shrewsbury's shadowy mistress, Eleanor Britton, might be at the bottom of many of the events that are instead ascribed to Shrewsbury's state of mental health, for example his refusal to be reconciled with his wife or see members of his own family. Perhaps the reason for his apparent demeanour might lie in his fear of being found out and having to cast aside his mistress. This thought struck me upon reading about the wealthy goods purloined by Eleanor immediately upon Shrewsbury's death. Perhaps the earl had given them to her after all?

In the first chapter, which is very well-written, it is immediately apparent that there will be a problem in physically handling this book. This is because there are both footnotes (which I prefer) AND endnotes (which I do not). If she wants to go down this route, then the endnotes should refer solely to sources (and thus can be disregarded by the general reader), and any pertinent extra information should be in the footnotes, or - better still - incorporated into the text; for if the text itself can refer to tapestries and the scarcity of potatoes, then it can equally refer to special marriage licences and Bess's earliest portrait. It is so annoying to have to look out for footnotes (whose markings are barely perceptible in the text); to have to check endnotes; and to have to read three appendices in the first chapter alone.

Having grumbled about all this, there is admittedly much that is new to me in these pages, for example that John Hardwick's ancestry made Bess a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth, and that Lovell has managed to determine Bess's year of birth. Whilst much ink is spent on descriptions of (to me) fripperies such as clothing, jewellery and embroidery, Lovell is nevertheless good on the wider social background to late-Tudor life. She is also helpful in providing a much fuller background to the main players in Bess's life, for instance there are ten pages about the history of William Cavendish prior to his meeting Bess. The work she has done in uncovering much about Bess's third husband - the "overlooked and misrepresented" Sir William St Loe - is also to be praised. Overall this is a fine biography and unlikely to be bettered in terms of style and content for a good while. I would recommend it as the best of Bess's biographies.

There is the odd glaring error of grammar or of repeated information that hints at poor proof-reading; and there are some unfortunate turns of phrase, such as "this humdinger of a family soap opera". It is also a shame that the final seven paragraphs are written in the style of an adolescent student essay.

There are some strange omissions, for example that `Hardwick' means `cattle farm, high on a hill'; and there is no explanation of who Lord Ogle was and where his castle was situated. (One of his daughters became Bess's daughter-in-law, and another her stepdaughter-in-law.) I felt also that there was a failure to fully and adequately explain why the Office of Wards was not involved after the death of Sir William Cavendish as it had been after the death of Bess's own father thirty years before.

There is often some confusion, for example over who was the abbot of St Albans, or over whether it was Bess's family or the Shrewsbury's who benefited most over the marriage between the former's eldest son to one of the latter's daughters. And mightn't the reference made by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Shrewsbury's `ships' refer not to actual ships on the sea, but rather to `vessels', that is to Shrewsbury's own servants? Also, in the statement about "all Bess's granddaughters had now married well and were happy", are we not forgetting Arbella?

And there are factual errors, for example Newgate Street would be in the right foreground (not left) of the plate showing Edward VI's coronation procession; and the Farnese were dukes of Parma (in Italy), not Palma (in Spain). And to talk of the British ambassador to Belgium is anachronistic: Belgium was not created until 1830. Both Tuthill Street (probably Tothill Street in Westminster) and Red Cross Street (there was more than one) did survive the Great Fire.

There are forty-three beautiful colour plates. Despite a good selection and of good quality, they are mainly too small to bear close scrutiny. What is missing is a map of the east Midlands that shows the principal residences that Bess occupied and travelled so often between.

There are six useful appendices, family trees, a bibliography, credits and an index. The latter appears good, but the places of Crowfield and Derby that appear on page 26, are not noted as such in the index.
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on 11 December 2008
Powerful woman who led her family to wealth & greatness

Bess of Hardwick was born the daughter of a gentlemen squire, that is, a farmer with a few servants, but an ancestry that allowed him (and his wife) to be part of the "gentry" in the age of King Henry VIII.
She married three times in all, and each time was able to maintain and increase the wealth and power of her family. She herself apparently controlled much of the family "business" and she had control over her grown children and even grandchildren, for most of their lives. Rare for a woman in any time period, she was astute and respected by almost all who knew her. She was able to become, by the time of her death at the (then) remarkable age of 80 the second most powerful and richest woman in England, after her friend Queen Elizabeth I. She had been able to marry off her children and step children very well, into the most powerful names of Tudor aristocracy and the author shows how many aristocratic houses of England are directly descended from this woman, including the Dukes of Devonshire.
Bess began the building of the fabulous home "Chatsworth" which is still a showpiece, though re-done over time. (See the biography of "Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire for more on Chatsworth).
Bess was the grandmother of the Princess Arbella, who could have just as well been the next Queen of England after Elizabeth I: Arbella had the exact same blood lines as her cousin James I, but her life, plotted and planned by her grandmother who had raised her with Queenship in mind, ended tragically).
Bess was a formidable yet at times kindly woman, as the author says, a type of CEO in the Tudor world.
It was a fascinating biography and a great glimpse in the Tudor/ Elzabethan world. (Having read so much about Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, etc, it is interesting to read about a non royal person, for other insights into that world.) Very well and clearly written. Highly recommended.
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