REVIEW: A Question of Guilt by Julianne Lee
Dear Mrs. Lee,
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
This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon.