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REVIEW: A Question of Guilt by Julianne Lee

Dear Mrs. Lee,

042522351501lzzzzzzz I used to read a fair number of biographies about Mary Stuart. She started life with everything going for her. A Queen while still only days old, she was raised in the luxurious court of France, and became its Queen until the death of her first husband. She was cultured, educated, beautiful and had men throwing themselves at her feet – though it was chilling how many of those men came to bad ends. One of those men was her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

She was executed for plotting the death of her fellow Queen, Elizabeth I, and many people felt she got what she deserved not only for the plotting but also for Henry’s death. After all, any woman who might have killed her husband was looked on with horror by any man of the day for fear his own wife might get ideas. But did she sanction or even take part in the death of the father of her only living child? Or is this merely a scurrilous charge concocted by those who wanted to depose her in favor of her baby son?

After Mary’s execution, one Scottish woman, married for nearly twenty years to an English merchant, decides she wants to know for sure. Was the Queen of Scots a murderess or merely a woman at the mercy of men far more ruthless and powerful than she? Lady Janet de Ros begins to ask questions of those who knew the Queen and in so doing, she puts not only her life but also her marriage in peril.

I wanted to like this book far more than I ultimately did. Lady Janet de Ros starts as a strong character. You present her as an intelligent woman, who has a good marriage to a man she respects and who works in quiet partnership with him in his business since he respects her as well. It is with misgivings that he watches her begin her inquiry.

I completely understand why he doesn’t want Janet to attract any attention with her questions. Poking one’s nose into royal doings is never smart in this age when a hint of treason is enough to cost one his head. We’re told Janet is the politically astute member of this marriage yet she’s unbelievably naive at times as to the political consequences of her questions and the fact that even though the supposed murder was 20 years ago, there are a lot of powerful people who still wouldn’t want questions asked nor their potential involvement uncovered.

As the book progressed, it was amazing to me that Janet found someone in the position to give her the details of the next phase of Mary’s life just when she needed it. Plus Scottish Janet’s speech was mainly English with an occasional brogue word thrown in when you remembered she’s supposed to be from Scotland. Indeed even when the mostly Scottish cast of characters are relaying their stories to Janet, while they may speak a little bit in brogue, most of the narrative is in flawless English. I might not care for much brogue in books, but if you’re going to use some, then it makes sense to carry that through all of a character’s speech.

The fact that so much of the tale is told in past tense, and the way the book is set up I know there’s no other way, removes us from the action and slows things down. It’s huge chunks of telling instead of showing and it got boring. The fact that Mary is already dead when Janet starts her questioning removes any urgency from Janet’s actions. It’s only her own curiosity that she’s trying to appease and when faced with the possible negative consequences to herself, Henry and their livelihood, why does she persist? Yet another reason I question her intelligence.

When she’s finished with her questions, I had to wonder – what did it get her? Her marriage, which she had bragged was one of the few good ones of the times, is broken almost beyond fixing. Though I certainly don’t agree with the way Henry imposed his authority, he did give her numerous opportunities to stop. He warned her many times of the real dangers they might face and she did little but blow him off each time. In the end, given the fact that men were raised to see themselves as head of their household, and he had to publicly save face, I marveled that he let her disobedience (as he would have seen it) go on as long as he did.

In the end, what do we the readers gain from Janet’s quest? Not much. There’s no way, now or then, for anyone to ever be positive if Mary knew of the plot against her second husband, much less whether or not she approved it or took an active role in it. Several other authors have already reached the same conclusion you give to Janet so it’s not as if new ground is broken on the subject.

The book is certainly readable and doesn’t veer off into the bizarre in an effort to offer possible answers to the questions that still persist about Mary’s life. Janet finds peace in her own mind about the Queen’s supposed involvement in the murder but again in the end, what does that get her? Does Janet gain more than she loses? IMO, no. As a reader I was left feeling this is a depressing book about the depressing end of a woman who should have had it all going for her but who, in the end, lost any control of her own life. C

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

9 Comments

  1. rebyj
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 21:57:01

    Hmm that’s lukewarm, but if it’s readable I will keep my eye out for it.

    If you like the subject of Mary , I really liked Margaret George’s Mary Queen of Scots and re-read once a year or so . I highly reccommend her books Especially her BEAUTIFULLY done Cleopatra .

    Here’s her website if she’s new to any of the DA readers.

    http://www.margaretgeorge.com/books/books.asp

  2. Jayne
    Dec 20, 2008 @ 06:19:31

    By coincidence, I just finished watching “Mary, Queen of Scots” staring Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave yesterday. Now, I know there were some liberties taken with historical facts in the film, but my overall impression these days is of a woman who totally flushed her life down the john. I just wonder how her life would have been different if she’d been taught to rule as well as she was taught to look majestic.

    Anyhow, I found the best sections of this book to be the ones concerning Janet while she was pursuing her quest. It does have nice glimpses of middle-class life as well as the view point of the working class.

  3. DS
    Dec 20, 2008 @ 09:09:30

    If you want to read a book that requires some slogging to get through but has reams of contemporary sources– not to mention end-notes, try Alison Weir’s nonfiction Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley.

    I’ve always found Elizabeth I more interesting than Mary. Mary’s grasp of politics seemed weak for someone who grew up in the Court of France and the ruthless Catherine de’Medici. I also never did understand the tendency of some authors to make Bothwell into a romantic hero. Even if his acquittal for Darnley’s murder wasn’t suspect, he did treat the women in his life in an appalling manner. It was stealing the dowry and abandoning a previous lover that created the situation that allowed the King of Denmark to lay hands on him and imprison him for the rest of his life. Nice irony that.

  4. Jayne
    Dec 20, 2008 @ 09:49:03

    I've always found Elizabeth I more interesting than Mary. Mary's grasp of politics seemed weak for someone who grew up in the Court of France and the ruthless Catherine de'Medici.

    But was she ever really trained in statecraft? She was at the court but always as the intended Queen Consort. She had very little to do with any policy making there and probably never would have had her first husband lived longer.

    I also never did understand the tendency of some authors to make Bothwell into a romantic hero. Even if his acquittal for Darnley's murder wasn't suspect, he did treat the women in his life in an appalling manner. It was stealing the dowry and abandoning a previous lover that created the situation that allowed the King of Denmark to lay hands on him and imprison him for the rest of his life. Nice irony that.

    Mary’s second and third husbands come off quite badly in the book. Darnley of course was what he was but Mary’s reasoning for marrying him comes off a little better then the books and films that portray her as just madly in lurve with him as a pretty boy. Here she’s strengthening her claim, and any claim of her children, to the English crown via Darnley’s own claim through Margaret Tudor.

    Most of the early biographies I read as a child did portray Bothwell as Mary’s true love. Here he’s a power hungry brute who basically kidnaps Mary and forces a marriage – not that he was alone in trying that – he just managed to actually do it where other Scottish nobles failed. His ending is, as you say, delicious irony.

  5. DS
    Dec 20, 2008 @ 11:30:12

    I was ready to accept the premise that Elizabeth actually sent the handsome but weak and morally corrupt Darnley to prevent Mary from making a more powerful (and threatening) match. Wasn’t that part of the story in the Glenda Jackson/Vanessa Redgrave movie? (I should probably feel embarrassed that I’ve seen Glenda Jackson in the movie but not in Elizabeth R.) Then of course there is the theory that William Cecil orchestrated Darnley’s murder and threw the blame on Bothwell’s party by having his henchmen leave evidence in the form of Archibald Douglas’ shoes at Kirk o’ Field the night of the murder– they were found and recognized the next day.

    Considering the relationship between Darnley’s mother, Margaret, Countess of Lennox, and Elizabeth prior to Elizabeth’s ascension– including the story about Margaret making the room above the Princess Elizabeth’s bedchamber in Whitehall deliberately into a kitchen so Elizabeth was disturbed by the noise overhead. Also it had been rumored that the Countess of Lennox had been considered by Queen Mary to be a possible successor, supplanting Elizabeth — I could easily see Elizabeth later taking revenge through Darnley who (from existing portraits) had a close physical resemblance to his mother.

    What a soap opera this part of the Tudor era would make.

  6. Jayne
    Dec 20, 2008 @ 16:17:20

    I was ready to accept the premise that Elizabeth actually sent the handsome but weak and morally corrupt Darnley to prevent Mary from making a more powerful (and threatening) match. Wasn't that part of the story in the Glenda Jackson/Vanessa Redgrave movie? (I should probably feel embarrassed that I've seen Glenda Jackson in the movie but not in Elizabeth R.)

    Yes, that’s how the film presents the events. And rather clever of Elizabeth if that’s what actually happened. There’s a line from their last (fictional) meeting just as Mary is hauled to Fotheringhay where Elizabeth tells Mary something to the effect that if her head had been as strong as her heart, it would be she, Elizabeth, standing there waiting to go on trial and face execution.

    Plots, counterplots, drama, sex, death…a soap opera indeed. And here we are, over 400 years after their deaths, still discussing them.

  7. Julianne Lee
    Dec 22, 2008 @ 10:38:49

    Hello, Jayne, and everyone. Killing time while waiting for my husband to come home off the road for Christmas, I’ve stumbled across this review and find your discussion fascinating. Though I can’t claim to not be disappointed you didn’t care for my book, you are absolutely entitled to your opinion and I’ve taken your comments to heart. You obviously know the subject matter well.

    You’re right, it’s a dark story. Mary’s situation was inherently quite depressing. Even had she been a stronger personality, she would have had trouble running things in a culture that looked upon all women as not just incapable of ruling men, but as basically incompetent in all areas of endeavor beyond squeezing out babies. Her rule was also thought to be against God’s law. Her very religion told her it was improper for her to tell men what to do.

    She also had an older half-brother who thought he should have been king. James was at the heart of nearly every movement against her. She was not just politically dependent on him, but to an extent psychologically dependent. As you say, she’d been raised to be a consort and not trained in statecraft, for her French relatives expected Francis to rule Scotland, not her. It never occurred to them she might need to know how to rule, and if it had they might not have cared. Better for France if the queen on Scotland’s throne is a weak relative they can influence, yes? In addition, by being female Mary had no hope of ever truly controlling her Scottish nobles, and had disadvantages even a weak male ruler wouldn’t have had.

    I do believe Mary had a crush on Henry, but only while he was courting her. That surely went away shortly after the wedding. I believe she saw him as weak and malleable, which to an extent he was. The fact that he didn’t know it and acted like a brat when he didn’t get his crown is what led to his assassination.

    I believe brother James set the plot in motion, then carefully removed himself from the action, leaving Bothwell holding the bag.

    Bothwell was a brilliant and valliant military commander, but had short man syndrome and bullied everyone he encountered. Especially women, and he was a known rapist. I have no doubt that his marriage to Mary was forced. I believe Mary acquiesced because she knew it was the only way to keep other men from trying the same thing. Basically, she gave up resistance because of ill health and exhaustion.

    For the record, I avoid reading much historical fiction. I prefer nonfiction, for I am very fussy about my research and don’t care to sift through other people’s errors. I’ll make my own, thankyouverymuch, and take responsibility for them. I do watch movies, though, for the visuals. Showtime’s “The Tudors” is beautifully photographed, but all in all the history of it is to laugh. Soap opera, indeed!

    Elizabeth is a truly fascinating figure. She was a brilliant woman at the heart of it, and far ahead of her time for fully understanding her perilous position as a female monarch. Plainly she took notes on the experiences of her sovereign relatives, particularly Mary I, who was at a greater disadvantage politically than Mary Stuart. Mary Tudor’s story is even more tragic than her cousin’s. I’ve recently delivered the manuscript for next year’s book, titled “Her Mother’s Daughter: A Novel of Queen Mary Tudor.”

    It’s delightful visiting with you all. So nice to read comments from folks who know their British history.

  8. Jayne
    Dec 22, 2008 @ 11:15:40

    Hello, Jayne, and everyone. Killing time while waiting for my husband to come home off the road for Christmas, I've stumbled across this review and find your discussion fascinating. Though I can't claim to not be disappointed you didn't care for my book, you are absolutely entitled to your opinion and I've taken your comments to heart. You obviously know the subject matter well.

    Welcome and I hope your husband makes it safely home soon.

    Even had she been a stronger personality, she would have had trouble running things in a culture that looked upon all women as not just incapable of ruling men, but as basically incompetent in all areas of endeavor beyond squeezing out babies.

    Something I think your book shows rather well. And this was another reason I was so sad at the ultimate outcome for Janet’s own marriage. She had one of the few husbands who actually thought her thougths were worth listening to.

    Her rule was also thought to be against God's law. Her very religion told her it was improper for her to tell men what to do.

    Which I guess explains why so few countries of the time allowed female monarchs. I’ve been thinking about this time period over the weekend and wondering just what would have happened to the Scottish succession had Mary not lived long after her birth? Who would have been crowned next? Anybody know?

    She also had an older half-brother who thought he should have been king. James was at the heart of nearly every movement against her. She was not just politically dependent on him, but to an extent psychologically dependent. As you say, she'd been raised to be a consort and not trained in statecraft, for her French relatives expected Francis to rule Scotland, not her. It never occurred to them she might need to know how to rule, and if it had they might not have cared. Better for France if the queen on Scotland's throne is a weak relative they can influence, yes? In addition, by being female Mary had no hope of ever truly controlling her Scottish nobles, and had disadvantages even a weak male ruler wouldn't have had.

    I’d love to read a book about James Stewart. He was a wily fox even if in the end, it didn’t get him much. I can see what you’re saying about the French wanting to still influence Mary. But did they? Did she have any contact with her uncles after she returned? But then how much influence did they have in French politics after she, their pawn and link to power, left the country? I also wonder if Mary would have been a better monarch had she stayed in Scotland and been raised there by her mother – who seemed much better at managing the Scottish lords. Watching her mother might have worked for Mary in much the same way as Elizabeth watching the mistakes of those who ruled before she did. And have given Mary much more experience in down and dirty political in-fighting.

    Bothwell was a brilliant and valliant military commander, but had short man syndrome and bullied everyone he encountered. Especially women, and he was a known rapist. I have no doubt that his marriage to Mary was forced. I believe Mary acquiesced because she knew it was the only way to keep other men from trying the same thing. Basically, she gave up resistance because of ill health and exhaustion.

    I guess by then she realized she couldn’t count on brother James and was going to have to have a strong man beside her. And maybe thought that Bothwell was as good – or as bad – as any of them.

    I do watch movies, though, for the visuals. Showtime's “The Tudors” is beautifully photographed, but all in all the history of it is to laugh. Soap opera, indeed!

    So true. But I watched only about 20 minutes of the first episode to realize that the historical fact twisting was going to drive me insane. That freed up 3 disc spaces on my Netflix queue!

    Elizabeth is a truly fascinating figure. She was a brilliant woman at the heart of it, and far ahead of her time for fully understanding her perilous position as a female monarch. Plainly she took notes on the experiences of her sovereign relatives, particularly Mary I, who was at a greater disadvantage politically than Mary Stuart. Mary Tudor's story is even more tragic than her cousin's. I've recently delivered the manuscript for next year's book, titled “Her Mother's Daughter: A Novel of Queen Mary Tudor.”

    I used to be a Mary fan but now my sympathies have swung to Elizabeth. What she managed to do in a time when women were viewed as boobs with heads is still amazing.

    It's delightful visiting with you all. So nice to read comments from folks who know their British history.

    Again, it’s nice to have you stop by and join in the discussion. Some authors don’t care to. Happy holidays!

  9. Julianne Lee
    Dec 22, 2008 @ 13:05:52

    Welcome and I hope your husband makes it safely home soon.

    Thank you. He’s been a show bus driver for thirty years, and has never missed a Christmas. Knock wood.

    I was so sad at the ultimate outcome for Janet's own marriage. She had one of the few husbands who actually thought her thougths were worth listening to.

    Not to go too much into the nuts and bolts of plot construction, I felt the need for a comment on the nature of rule. Since leadership isn’t just about controlling other people, I wanted to show that sometimes people in charge make mistakes without necessarily realizing the damage they do. Henry deRos learned his lesson, perhaps a little late. I didn’t think it would be terribly realistic for everything to go back to hunky-dory at the end, but my feeling is that eventually the friendship might return to the marriage. That’s a separate story.

    Which I guess explains why so few countries of the time allowed female monarchs

    Ah. Misogyny has been with us since the beginning of recorded history. I don’t think this period was unusual at all in this. In fact, it was remarkable that there were any female monarchs in Europe.

    wondering just what would have happened to the Scottish succession had Mary not lived long after her birth? Who would have been crowned next?

    My money is on brother James. With no legitimate heir for their father, James would have been the natural choice. He had a great deal of political support, which was what made him so dangerous to Mary. There probably would have been an armed conflict with the Gordons first, but James would most likely have prevailed. The Highland clans tended to splinter under circumstances like that, and Gordon was only a cousin to the king. It would have been a simple thing to get Parliament to mock up some sort of document declaring James legitimate, and that would have been the end of it.

    I'd love to read a book about James Stewart.

    I’d love to write one.

    I can see what you're saying about the French wanting to still influence Mary. But did they?

    No. But the idea was for Francis to rule Scotland. Influencing Mary was Plan B.

    Watching her mother might have worked for Mary in much the same way as Elizabeth watching the mistakes of those who ruled before she did.

    Mmm…Marie deGuise wasn’t queen and didn’t have those nobles climbing all over each other to force marriage on her. And marriage was the only way to produce a legitimate heir. Elizabeth never married, probably after seeing what had happened to the two Marys. And by then Prince James was born, who was plainly the most likely candidate to succeed her without a fuss, and there was a chance to join the crowns of England and Scotland, something England had wanted since Edward I. Elizabeth not only didn’t want to marry, she didn’t have to. That wasn’t true about Mary Tudor or Mary Stuart.

    Mary Stuart might have been a stronger queen with her mother’s training, but that probably wouldn’t have saved her.

    And maybe thought that Bothwell was as good – or as bad – as any of them.

    It’s believed, but not proven, she caved when he told her he’d killed her previous husband. She may have believed that anyone she married instead of Bothwell would be in similar danger.

    There is also that he, by most accounts, raped her. That held a lot more consequence for women then than it does now. She probably felt she had to marry him.

    I used to be a Mary fan but now my sympathies have swung to Elizabeth

    For me it’s not either-or. I think Mary Tudor has been maligned by history as evil or insane. I think she was just neurotic and as a monarch trying to emulate her parents. She had a lot going for her, but had too much baggage to make it work. Her poor health, much of which was psychosomatic, did her in. Some would say mercifully, and there is some truth to that.

    nice to have you stop by and join in the discussion. Some authors don't care to

    Silly authors.

    Julianne

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