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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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)