Most helpful positive review
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2009
I came to this book after reading a couple of biographies of Bess of Hardwick. Bess died in 1608, when her granddaughter Arbella still had seven years of life to live. I was curious, and was glad to buy this book and read it. Like me, Sarah Gristwood's interest in Arbella was also sparked by Bess of Hardwick, but also by the latter's relations with Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart. Arbella formed the fourth side of "an irregular diamond" and Gristwood writes that her "own allegiance was always to the Tudor model. I never heard the Stuart song ... But Arbella provoked in me a nagging sense of a story missed ..."
Gristwood, in her preface, admits that, "The title of this book ... is something of a ... provocation. But, like every such statement, it contains a kernel of truth." Indeed, how could it not when Arbella was third cousin to Queen Elizabeth and first cousin to King James. (By the way, it is annoying to see James's wife, Anne of Denmark, referred to as "Anna"?)
I was initially put off by the prologue to the biography, which opens like some cheap romantic novel. It is very well-written if you like your historical biography in a style such as this: "Trouble was in her very bloodlines ..." But once passed the prologue, Gristwood gets into her stride. Her research has been deep and wide, and her knowledge of the epoch cannot be contradicted. (The select bibliography runs to eight pages.)
The chronological structure of the book is in five parts. The first covers the first thirteen years of Arbella's life; the second takes us up to her mid-twenties; the third part is devoted solely to four months in 1603 and Arbella's quest for freedom in parallel with the dieing days of Elizabeth's reign. Part four takes the story up to 1610 - even when her cousin James becomes king, the "confusion about Arbella's status was to fog her path" - whilst the final years of her relatively short life complete the fifth part. It was good to be able to revisit the subject of the prologue in this final segment.
But there is an epilogue still to go, for "Arbella's life seemed to have ended not with a bang but with a whimper - and that is no finish for a story." Here she follows the fates of Arbella's nearest and dearest, especially that of her husband who had another fifty years of life left. (Arbella's supposed links with America are far too tenuous to be worthy of mention.) Then, Arbella's interest to historians is reviewed. And the moral of the book? Well, Gristwood writes, "There is a temptation to feel that any life deemed worthy of a biography must exemplify something; ... She seems to me ... to represent how far the human spirit can fall into frustration and despair without every giving up completely."
There are some interesting appendices on whether it was Christopher Marlowe who was her tutor for a brief moment and whether Arbella suffered from porphyria. Gristwood is alert to the biographical challenge if Arbella did suffer from the same ailment that later would torment George III: "If Arbella's agonies and rebellions were the result not of social or psychological pressures but of a biochemical imbalance, what then becomes of a feminist or a psychological reading of her story?" A third excellent appendix addresses `people and places'.
The book comes with some excellent colour plates, although William Seymour is missing. There is, alas, no map, which is unfortunate since the opening of the book describes Rufford hall and all the nearby places that matter. The book ends with family trees, source notes, a select bibliography, picture acknowledgements, and an index. I feel I should point out problems with the list of black & white text illustrations at the close of the picture acknowledgements section, as both the number of these and the page references are in error. (This is probably due to my reading the paperback edition.)