Saturday Caturday

It’s another low-energy day here at Chez Silverapplequeen & the kitties & I are taking it easy. Jack is sleeping on James’ bed as usual; Radar & Bobby are here with me on the couch. Little flakes of snow float past the window like they don’t care if they fall to the ground or flutter forever in the brittle air. A good novel & a cup of tea & purring kitties are all I need.

photograph © polly macdavid

Bookworm Wednesday

Not to deflect from the seriousness of the political situation unfolding daily in the United States or the ongoing health crisis with COVID-19 still raging, I want to start pulling a book (or a series of books) from my library & talk about how this book & the author of the book influenced my thinking & my writing.  In many cases, it was quite political without me even knowing it until I was much older!

 

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Only a few of my books.

 

This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while – before I moved to this new place – but I was so depressed, I couldn’t get my shit together to start it.  & I couldn’t decide what day to post it.  Or what to call it.  Ya know – all the ways you procrastinate when you’re feeling down.

I used to own many more books.  Once I had over 2500 books.  Years of moving – sometimes every two or three months – putting books in storage & then not being able to retrieve them – giving books away to library book sales – & of course, loaning books to people & never getting them back – I have lost over three-quarters of my collection.  Many of the books I lost are now “collectibles” & very expensive.

This is also very depressing but I try to tell myself that “they’re only books”.

In the past few years, I have dedicated myself to rebuilding my collection as best I can.  In addition to regaining books I formerly owned, I am also collecting books that used to be in public libraries but are no longer on the shelves.  This includes books by authors like Eleanor Hibbert, better known by her nom de plumes, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt & Philippa Carr.

 

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My Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt novels

 

Right now, I am reading the Plantagenet Series by Jean Plaidy.  I grew up reading Jean Plaidy novels.  I’ve been reading them since the early 1970’s.  The I don’t remember reading the Plantagenet Series when they came out, because they were published in the later 1970’s into the 1980’s & by then I was into erotic novels & I wanted more bang for my buck, so to speak.  But I am quite enjoying them now.

I am currently reading the seventh novel in the series, The Hammer of the Scots, which is about Edward I.  If you have seen the movie “Braveheart”, then you know who this king is.  He’s the good guy in this version of the story.

 

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Don’t you love this pulp fiction cover?

 

There are fifteen novels in this series, ending with the marriage of Henry Tudor & Margaret, Princess of York, thus the series seamlessly moves into Plaidy’s Tudor series.  In fact, this fifteenth novel of the Plantagenet series, “Uneasy Lies the Head” was renamed “To Hold the Crown” & marketed as the first novel of the Tudor series.  This happens all the time with Jean Plaidy novels & it’s easy to buy the same book with a different title.

Unlike other historical novelists, Plaidy sticks fairly close to the facts so reading her novels are a good way to learn as you are entertained.  & while she speaks of the erotic & the sensual, she’s never in bed with her characters.  She’s no prude but she’s no puritan, either.

With that, welcome to Bookworm Wednesday!

all photographs © polly macdavid

 

 

Immortal Queen

immortal queen

Immortal Queen, by Elizabeth Byrd. New York: Ballantine Books, 1956
I bought this book at a used book sale in 1975. I have read it at least several hundred times. Along with Gone With the Wind and Katherine, it is easily one of my favorite books. It sweeps you into its drama with the very first sentence. It is all Mary, all the time. Written totally from Mary’s point of view, we always know what she is thinking, feeling, doing. Unlike Jean Plaidy’s Mary – Royal Road to Fotheringhay was published the previous year – Elizabeth Byrd presents a Mary Stuart in control of her destiny. She is imperious, intelligent, tenacious and true to her own self to the very end. She is not always the nicest person in the world but she is always a Queen.
From the very beginning, this is the love story of Mary and Bothwell. In the Prologue, she is preparing for her death, and she is thinking of him, dead nine years earlier. As the Prologue turns into Chapter One, she hears thunder and remembers a lion roaring in her childhood and we are taken to St.Germaine-en-Laye, where a twelve-year-old Queen Mary is learning with the Valois children and young lion is chained nearby. Mary is upset about the lion and starts to cry. “I can’t bear it!” she sobbed, hand to her face. (15) She doesn’t know why but later – much later – she realizes that she was seeing into the future.
But at this point in the novel, her whole life is France. Through a series of vignettes, we see Mary rigorously learning Greek with her governess and the Valois royal children; Mary’s friendship with her Maries; Mary’s antagonism with Catherine de Medici; Mary’s affection for her uncle the Cardinal de Lorraine; Mary’s admiration for the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

By the time she is ready to marry Francis, the Dauphin of France, her personality is well-formed. Intelligent, intuitive, and idealistic, she is ready to take power in her hands but frustrated with having to defer to her uncles and the king. Of course, this is her problem when she gets back to Scotland as well. And things are not going well in Scotland. Her mother, whom she has not seen since she was a child, is the regent in Mary’s absence, and she is fighting a bloody civil war against Mary’s own nobles. Mary’s young husband is sick & near death when she hears of her mother’s death and this is when Bothwell enters Mary’s life. There is an instant sexual attraction between them, more on Mary’s part than Bothwell’s, of which Mary is resentfully aware. But more importantly, they connect as friends. Mary is able to be honest with Bothwell as she is unable to be with anyone else in her life, even her Maries.
The rest of the book goes along the predictable storyline. Francis II dies and Mary returns to Scotland. Unlike other novels, Mary has a distrust of her bastard half-brother James Stewart from the start and doesn’t agonize over the end of their familial relationship. When he is giving her good advice, she is happy to have him in her court and on her council but when he’s being a jerk, she gets rid of him happily.
Mary may not be happy in Scotland but she is totally its Queen. She never stops trying to consolidate her power, even as she tries to be tolerant of the religious differences of her Lords and the people of Edinburgh. She meets with John Knox in an attempt to neutralize his attacks on her. She holds up reasonably well but is no match for his rhetoric. She takes on the Earl of Huntly, the major Catholic Lord in Scotland, and a perceived threat to her own power, and she decimates his base in the North. She executes Chastelard. She hires Rizzio as a musician and he eventually becomes her private secretary. She marries Henry, Lord Darnley after an exhaustive search for a husband. In this novel, she does falls in love with Darnley but Bothwell insists to Mary that she is merely in a “dream of lust”. (226) Of course, Bothwell is right. Once the honeymoon is over – barely before the wedding night – Mary is once again dreaming of Bothwell.
But basically, it’s the love story of Mary and Bothwell. She is always in love with Bothwell. She loves Bothwell even though she knows he’s the worst marriage prospect ever since none of the Lords will ever work with him. Somehow though, she thinks that once they’re married everything will be OK. Of course it goes from bad to worse and the lovers, now married, separate at Carberry Hill, and the last 255 pages of the novel deal with Mary in various prisons, where she manages to smuggle letters to Bothwell in his various prisons. Near the end of the novel, when Mary is imprisoned in Sheffield, she learns that Bothwell has gone mad and has been put in the Danish State Prison at Dragsholm Castle in New Zealand. She flashes back to her childhood at St.Germaine-en-Laye, and sees the chained lion in the garden and wonders if she too, is going mad.
The rest of the novel goes by predictably. Mary grows older and becomes arthritic. She rejoices as her enemies are killed off in Scotland. She accepts her plight as a prisoner; then one day she decides she wants to be free and takes a dangerous chance with a local brewer and a young page, never knowing she is being set up by Elizabeth’s master spy-catcher. To the end, she struggles with the concept of going to her death as a Catholic martyr. Thinking about her coming death, she thinks, “She did not fear the act of dying; she feared the aftermath, the fires of hell.” (593) Continuing her reflection, she imagines that “God might forgive her for her part in Darnley’s murder, for she repented daily, nightly. But he could not forgive her adulterous love for Bothwell or her heretic marriage – because she could not truly repent them.” (593) The novel ends with the words, “En ma fin est ma commencement … In my end is my beginning.” (631)
After the novel end, there is an “Afterward” in which Elizabeth Byrd writes, “That truth is stranger than fiction is again made evident in the life of Mary Stuart.” (632) She writes about some of the incidents in the novel, asserting they were true but also using sources that were somewhat biased and melodramatic in tone. She also believes in the authenticity of the “Casket Letters”, writing, “For four hundred years controversy has raged about these letters. Mary’s defenders claim they were forgeries or that her enemies made interpolations in innocent letters. It is doubtful we shall ever know the truth, for the original letters no longer exist and only copies remain.” (634-35) She then quotes at length from Stefan Zweig, whose “psychological” biography of Mary Stuart was one of the most misogynist versions I had ever had the displeasure to read; Byrd writes that she agrees with Zweig that Mary wrote the Casket Letters “for it was perfectly in her nature to write foolishly and even dangerously. (No one has ever questioned the authenticity of her letter … reviling Elizabeth).” (635) I might point out that those letters are mutually exclusive; and the letter reviling Elizabeth was found in Mary’s possession, not in some other place; but of course, it is also not love letters and sonnets to a swash-buckling lord. Which you need for a novel like this.

When I first bought the book in high school, I simply read it and loved it and didn’t think about it too much. I simply loved Mary and wanted to be like her. A queen, in control of her destiny, even if that destiny didn’t turn out so great. She never stopped trying and that’s what I loved about her. She had great beauty and great style and all her people loved her. She had a great love story that lived on beyond her. That’s what I saw for years and years. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?
Recently, though, I’ve seen other things in this book. Things that get on my nerves. Not really bad, not bad enough to stop me from reading it but I have to mention them. This is supposed to be the great love story of Mary and Bothwell? Well, isn’t Bothwell’s name James Hepburn? Wouldn’t it make sense that Mary would call him James or Jim or Jimmy or even something more private like ma cherie or mon amour or anything like that? Even when she is being beheaded and she is calling out to him, she is calling out to “Bothwell!” (628) (itialics in book). I find that really amazing.
Also, if this is supposed to be such a great love story between the two of them, why does Mary have to stoop to such idiot-ass pranks to get Bothwell to notice her? Like she’s a high school freshman and he’s the big man on campus. She’s the Queen, for heaven’s sake. But she spends almost every waking hour after she gives birth to her son James to getting Bothwell’s attention. It isn’t even a question of seducing him, she’s not even in his sights. She has to make his wife think they’re having an affair, which pisses him off and then he beats her and rapes her. But in true romantic novel fashion, the brutal rape turns to ecstatic love and by the end of the chapter, Mary is in glorious heaven. Bothwell too is in love. Instead of taking Mary, he is taken himself. “I thought only to humble you, and find I have humbled myself.” (359)
Even as a girl, I found this scene problematic. A woman is beaten and raped and she falls in love with the rapist? Really? Even if she was already in love with the rapist, being beaten up and taken like a dog isn’t going to make any woman feel particularly loving. And rapists don’t talk of being “humbled”. They don’t use that kind of language at all. Besides, Bothwell’s subsequent words and actions are anything but “humble”. He tells her, “None will possess you, brain and body, as I do.” (360) Which may sound romantic but are actually about power and control.
Still, this is one of the most satisfying novels about Mary I have ever read and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s an easy read, on the level of Gone with the Wind, and the singular point of view is similar to GWTW as well. It’s all Mary, all the time. While we’re at it, the character of Bothwell, as written in Immortal Queen, has more than a passing resemblance to Rhett Butler. Both are tall, broad, graceful, well-read, independent, cat-nip to women, and are serve as truth-tellers and shit-detectors for either Mary or Scarlett. GTWT was written twenty years earlier than Immortal Queen and the Rhett Butler archetype had been well established by that time.
I could write a lot more about this novel and will probably come back to it some day because there’s so much I like about it but also a lot more to discuss about it.

Works Cited
Byrd, Elizabeth. Immortal Queen: A Novel of Mary, Queen of Scots. New York: Ballantine Books, 1956

Novels about Mary Queen of Scots: Royal Road to Fotheringhay and The Captive Queen of Scots by Jean Plaidy

Royal Road to Fotheringhay and The Captive Queen of Scots, by Jean Plaidy

In the summer of 1973, I was at the J.V. Fletcher Library in Westford, Massachusetts, and I was taken in by the cover of a book with a beautiful woman in an emerald green dress and long dark hair. She looked exactly like I wanted to look.  For that
images reason alone, I borrowed the book. But I was also intrigued by the title: The Captive Queen of Scots.  I was interested in anything about Mary Queen of Scots. I had recently seen the movie starring Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Dalton, which was disappointing on a variety of levels – the main one being that it wasn’t even close to being factual, which I found out when I read Mary,Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser, a giant hardcover which belonged to my mother. Fraser’s book was a very hard read for a young teen but it became the main text for my Mary Queen studies and I returned to it again and again, and eventually bought my own copy, which I still own today.
If I was looking for the love story of Mary and Bothwell, I didn’t find it in The Captive Queen of Scots and in many ways, it was more a story of Elizabeth I than Mary. Although I read almost all of Jean Plaidy’s books before I was seventeen, I didn’t reread “Captive Queen” and I don’t recall ever reading Royal Road to Fotheringhay.
Several years ago, I started collecting the novels I loved as a teenager. Jean Plaidy was high on that list, as was Anya Seton, Taylor Caldwell, Rumor Godden, and many other women writers who are now hardly remembered. Two of the first books I bought were Royal Road to Fotheringhay and The Captive Queen of Scots.
The covers were now quite different. Gone was the sexy vixen on the front. Both featured pictures of Mary that were based on actual pictures of the Queen and much more subdued and demure. But every bit as mysterious and alluring.
new royal road to fotheringhay
Like I said, I have been reading Jean Plaidy novels for years. I think I must have read almost every single one of them she had published before 1977, when I turned seventeen. I also read the novels she wrote under other pseudonyms – Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr, and Kathleen Kellow. I have long been amazed at her prolific amounts of writing and the careful research that went into her books. She always had a page of reference books, for those of us who wanted to know more. Of course I am one of those people who always want to know more.

new captive queen of scots
When I read Royal Road to Fotheringhay and The Captive Queen of Scots in 2012 and several more times in the past three years, I have been struck by one main thing: Jean Plaidy does not like Mary Queen of Scots. She doesn’t have very many nice things to say about her. I made a list of words that Plaidy uses to describe Mary, divided into three columns – “Pro”, “Con”, and “Either/Or”. The “Con” list is longer than the “Pro” and the “Either/Or” list by more than double the words. And of all the “Pro” words, only one refers to something other than her physical attributes – “intelligent” on page 21 of Royal Road to Fotheringhay, and that refers to her learning abilities as a child – all other positive references to Mary are “beautiful”, “lovely”, “radiant”, etc.  Everything to do with her physical attributes and nothing to do with her mental, emotional or spiritual qualities.  But most of the adverbs and adjectives are derogatory, to say the least. They include: “impulsive”, “hot-tempered”, “spoiled”, “unhealthy”, “silly”, “simpering”, “skittering”, “soft”, “sentimental”, “frivolous”, “arrogant”, “haughty”, “inexperienced”, “foolish”, “reckless”, “hysterical”, “gullible” and “pathetic”.  Some of these are used more than once.  Really, the way that Plaidy presents Mary Queen of Scots, it’s amazing that this queen lasted as long as she did, being the dumbass that she is.  She clings to the notion that her brother, James Stewart, whom she calls “Jamie”, is a good guy, although he has betrayed her time and again, and she admits to that!  She agrees to her own abdication, saying that “You are the man, James.  Our father’s son.  Sober and religious acceptable to the people, strong, firm, destined to rule.” (The Captive Queen of Scots, 44).  I personally have a hard time believing that any anointed queen, let alone Mary Queen of Scots, who was crowned at the age of 9 days and knew no other reality, would ever say this to her bastard half-brother.
This Mary is so stupid that although she realizes that she’s been raped, she is unable to stop herself from wanting her rapist and falling under his sexual spell. Who does that? Plaidy writes, “There was nothing but this extraordinary, overwhelming emotion – this mingling of fury and pleasure, of a terrible shame and an unaccountable joy.” (Royal Road to Fotheringhay, 264) Since when is rape “joy”? And even though she knows she was raped, she is unable to do anything about it at all – this queen who had Chastelard beheaded for hiding in her bedchamber, who had successful military campaigns against Huntly & her brother James Stewart, but she just sit in her room and gets excited when she thinks about it. She seeks out Bothwell — not to have him arrested for assaulting her — a charge that would have stuck, since he was so hated anyway — but to continue the “affair”.  What woman wants to have a romantic affair with a rapist?  With her rapist? Especially one as boorish as this Bothwell is made out to be?
I realize that this book was originally written and published in 1955, long before the second-wave of feminism took on the patriarchal slant against history and popular culture.  And we all know about women who carry water for the patriarchy, although I’m not sure that Plaidy is one of these.  I think she is just a Freudian, which would make sense, given the times in which she lived and the books she used for her research.  One of the books Plaidy used as reference was Stefan Zweig’s The Queen of Scots, which is supposedly a “Freudian” portrait of Mary Stuart but it is almost impossible for any feminist to read with its rape apologia and misogyny. Given that this is one of Plaidy’s references, it is almost forgivable that she gives Mary Stuart such a weak character.  If Mary Stuart was indeed raped by Bothwell, how is any woman to explain her subsequent actions?  By using Freudian excuses, naturally!  It’s amazing that Plaidy doesn’t go as far as to blame Mary for the rape itself.  Of course there is no proof that she was indeed raped or when the rape happened.  However, Plaidy’s inclusion of the rape and how Mary deals with it is disappointing to say the least.  As a feminist and a rape survivor, it’s actually quite disturbing.
Plaidy consistently degrades Mary Stuart, no matter who she is writing about – in her Catherine de’Medici novels, she goes out of her way to bring Mary into the story when she really doesn’t have anything to do with the novel, as in The Italian Woman. Not only does she put Mary down, she puts down Scotland and the Scots. The Captive Queen of Scots is one long discussion about how much nicer England is than Scotland.  In all of Plaidy’s novels, she goes out of her way to celebrate England and great Englishmen and women.  Why does she do this?  Patriotism aside, the reason is Elizabeth I
Like many writers, both British and American, Plaidy is unable to write about Mary, Queen of Scots without comparing her to Elizabeth. Without actually saying it, the POV of both Royal Road to Fotheringhay and The Captive Queen of Scots is that of Glorianniac. Elizabeth I is, without doubt, the wisest and most just queen to ever rule the British Isles, indeed the entire world, and all other queens pale in comparison. Mary, Queen of Scots is but a “skittering lass” compared to the glory that is Elizabeth I.
To make this point clear, take a look at Queen of this Realm, originally published in 1984. I bought my copy in 2013, queen of this realm
which is the first time I read this book, never having an interest in Elizabeth I beyond her role in Mary Stuart’s sad story. But I was amazed at the novel. Not only did Plaidy portray Elizabeth as superbly intelligent, religiously astute, and sexually alluring, but also wise enough to use the men around her to her advantage, never ever being used by them in the process.  But the main thing was that Plaidy told the story in the first-person point of view. She saw herself as Elizabeth. As far as I know, this is the only Jean Plaidy novel which is not third-person omniscient and it really shows her ultimate political and cultural viewpoint. It also explains her animosity towards Mary, Queen of Scots.
Still, Jean Plaidy books are fabulously well written and always entertaining. As much as I may complain about her lack of love for Mary Queen of Scots, I still like to read Royal Road to Fotheringhay and The Captive Queen of Scots. I highly recommend them to any Mary Queen of Scots affectionado and to any Jean Plaidy fan.
Works considered
Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969
Plaidy, Jean. Queen of this Realm. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1984
Plaidy, Jean. Royal Road to Fotheringhay. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1955, 1968
Plaidy, Jean. The Captive Queen of Scots. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1963, 2006
Plaidy, Jean. The Italian Woman. New York: A Touchstone Book, 1952, 1997
Zweig, Stefan. Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. New York: Lancer Books, 1962 (1935)

Novels About Mary Queen of Scots

I have been reading novels about Mary Queen of Scots, along with reading biographies and other studious books on her life.  Over the last year, I have read four major novels and a few minor novels.  The major novels are “Immortal Queen” by Elizabeth Byrd, “Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles” by Margaret George, “Royal Road to Fotheringhay” and “The Captive Queen of Scots” by Jean Plaidy, and “The Other Queen” by Philippa Gregory.  The minor novels are “The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots” by Carrolly Ericson and “The White Queen,” by “Frederic Fallon.  There are more novels about Mary; some young adult — but I haven’t read them yet.  

Straight up, I am going to say that out of all these novels, “Immortal Queen” is the best of the lot.  It has the best Mary.  Not a perfect Mary but not the silly, stupid Mary of the Jean Plaidy novels.  Margaret George’s Mary is wonderful, but like all her novels, there is too much of everyone and everything else.  We hear Mary’s voice most wonderfully in Philippa Gregory’s wonderful novel, but is it really her?  

Over the next few posts, I will look at these novels more closely and compare them to one another.  I hope you will find this as interesting as I do.