Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bess of Hardwick - Mary S Lovell

Bess of Hardwick is one of those historical figures that you normally only hear about in passing, when her path crosses that of Elizabeth I or Mary Queen of Scots. Whether those glimpses are positive or negative depends on the attitude of the historian, but she's always loomed large in the background, a powerful female magnate in a still male-dominated century. With the current popularity of biographies of queens and other historical women, it was only a matter of time before Bess got the same treatment, and Mary S Lovell has done a sterling job of it.

Bess was never a political figure, which is probably why she gets sidelined in so many more general histories of the period. The only real political involvement she had was when her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was made custodian of Mary Queen of Scots for the bulk of the latter's incarceration, which famously caused the breakdown of their marriage. The book naturally covers this in great detail, but it also gives us the Before and After, with Bess's first three husbands and her rise to power, and her later role as wealthy matriarch and land baroness, fighting to secure inheritances and possible royal marriages for her children and grandchildren.

Lovell tells us in the Foreword about the vast amounts of primary source material on Bess's life, and the tale never strays far from the original texts. Nearly all of Bess's reported actions are backed up by close reference to account books, court records or other correspondence, and Lovell is scrupulous about letting us know when the evidence is absent or even slightly shaky. This straightforward style occasionally feels somewhat Mickey Mouse, but for the most part it's very refreshing, and she never falls into the trap of overdramatising the facts; any inferences she draws are clearly stated and labelled as such, and even the speculation (where the records are thin or absent) is based on sensible extrapolation from other contemporary sources.

Overall, while Bess's life may not be quite as exciting as other events of the 16th Century, this is a comprehensive and sympathetic biography of a remarkable woman.



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