A Discordant Queen

Mary Queen of Scots

by Antonia Fraser
Delacorte, 613 pp., $10.00

Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots; drawing by David Levine

Lady Antonia Fraser is young, beautiful, and rich, an earl’s daughter married to a busy and successful politician, the mother of a large family; yet she has surmounted all these handicaps to authorship to produce a first-rate historical biography. I do not mean to sound sarcastic or patronizing. Only a practicing historian knows the hours of boring and backbreaking labor that go into a book like this; and in a well-trampled field like the life of Mary Stuart the burden of such labor is not lightened by the hope of some exciting find.

It is the defect of most “amateur” historians that they evade this drudgery, or abandon it halfway through. They pad out their bibliographies and cut back their footnotes (blandly announcing that this is to humor their illiterate readers, the poor dears), they hopefully cram their prefaces with acknowledgments to Professor X and Doctor Y, and in the last resort they pretend that a book to which they have devoted years of effort, of one kind or another, is only an interim report. It is easy for any biographer, trained or otherwise, to put the emotional stress in the wrong place, and to forget in the agonies of her heroine the agonies she created, and there is always the temptation to “stretch” sources which are always inadequate and often ambiguous. From conjecturing that Queen Mary may have thought such-and-such it is a short step to saying that she thought it. (The final step, of making her say it, is one that some authors do not shrink from.) Finally, there is a special kind of martyred sentimentality that afflicts female historians writing about women, paralleled by the jovial locker-room camaraderie which infects many male historians writing about men.

I approached Lady Antonia’s book expecting to find some, if not all of these faults, and my confidence was not bolstered by the fact that most of the reviewers who greeted it so rapturously in England were also women, and women innocent hitherto of any historical knowledge or expertise. To my relief it is a beautifully written book, thoroughly but unostentatiously researched. Lady Antonia avoids the temptation to romanticize an inherently romantic and tragic story, and her tense, muscular narrative generates a flow which carries the reader on unwearying to the end. It is as definitive a life as we shall get of a woman whom her cousin Elizabeth called “the daughter of debate that eke discord doth sow,” who has sown discord among historians to this day.

The first task is to strip away the layers of varnish plastered on Queen Mary’s portrait, and here the Scots are the sinners, not the English. It was the English who imprisoned her for the last nineteen years of her life, but it was the Scots who gave them the excuse, it was the Scots who denounced her as the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.