Top positive review
Shedding Light on Semi-Darkness
9 January 2013
I cannot speak highly enough of this book. Other reviewers seem to think the same, and I am not sure I am saying anything new, but my enthusiasm for the book was so great that I just felt I had to write something.
Almost anyone with minimal knowldge of British history knows something about Mary Queen of Scots; they also know quite a bit about Queen Elizabeth and her senior minister Cecil, later Lord Burleigh. Yet this book manages to shed a great deal more light on these important people than even experts would have known before reading it.
The outline is, of course, well known. Queen of Scotland only days after her birth, off to France at the age of 6 to marry the heir to that kingdom, queen of France and then dowager queen almost immediately. Back to Scotland to marry a second husband who then murders a senior advisor of hers before being himself murdered. Then a struggle with the Scottish nobles which Mary comprehensively loses, a foolish third marriage, then flight to England where she spends years as a prisoner before being beheaded for her part in a plot against Elizabeth.
For starters, Guy gives Mary's life a narrative that makes sense of the various individual strands. If I may digress for a minute, I have a post-graduate history degree and almost gave up my studies on day 1 when I started to read the first book that my new tutor gave me to read. It was exactly what I most feared, almost indigestible with intellectual argument where the author's intellect is given a much higher priority than book clarity. Luckily later books were much better and after the first week I was never again tempted to give up. Indeed I could recommend some of the books I read then as enthusiastically as I can recommend this book on Mary. Academic history books can be a good read, but often aren't.
If a good narrative were the only strength of this book I would still have enormously enjoyed reading it, but would not be giving it 5 stars. What makes the book great is a combination of the detailed analysis of some of the more contentious facts, and the insight the book gives on the relationship between Cecil and Elizabeth, showing how strongly they differed on how best to treat Mary, not just after the Babbington plot, but pretty well from the moment she returns to Scotland after the death of her first husband. It also contains some little nuggets of trivia that I feel the better for knowing. I now know that a well know nursery rhyme is based on Mary, and one of Shakespeare's best known characters is a parody on Cecil.
OK I did not know either of those little nuggets. More important, I also did not know that there is strong reason to believe that Mary was completely innocent of the murder of Darnley. Most histories suggest that she was at least in some way involved; he was such a bastard that even if she was completely guilty most people today would be reluctant to criticise her, but at the time her presumed involvement was an unspeakable crime. I also did not realise that Cecil was so fanatically Protestant that he fought tooth and nail to prevent Elizabeth from establishing a good relationship with Mary (as well as being fellow queens, they were, after all also first cousins once removed). The ladies in fact never met. But they certainly would have done had Elizabeth's (and Mary's) wishes not been thwarted by Cecil.
One small criticsm. At the point where Darnley has just been murdered, Guy interrupts his narrative with some chapters analysing the various accounts by interested parties. A serious academic book would have been seriously incomplete without this analysis; they are needed to argue Mary's innocence or guilt. But it does interrupt the flow of the narrative, and perhaps that analysis could have been hived off to an appendix. But that is a very small criticism, and I dare say that other readers are happier with the analysis in line. It certainly does not detract from my overall statement that this book is a first class piece of history.