Publication date: 3/18/2014
Edition description: (2 volume set)
My thoughts: When I was offered the opportunity to review the book at Scandalous Women, I was a little wary. I’ve gone on record about the overload of historical fiction set during the Tudor era. And the title gave me pause as well. QUEEN ELIZABETH’S DAUGHTER? Was this going to be some sort of alternative history where Elizabeth and Robert Dudley have a child who is smuggled away and doesn’t learn of her heritage until later? (I’m pretty sure that someone has written this book!). However, when I read the summary, I was intrigued. While I had heard of Madge Shelton, I had no idea that there was another Mary Shelton who had a connection with the Tudors. My interest was piqued.
Orphaned at the age of 3, Mary has grown up at the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary is not just Elizabeth’s ward, but she is also her cousin through the Boleyns. The Queen is the closest thing to a mother that Mary has ever known but she is also her sovereign which makes for a complicated relationship. We meet Mary when she is fifteen and just blossoming as a woman. Her childhood nemesis has finally noticed her as a woman, and she experiences her first love. When Elizabeth learns that Mary is in love with a young man of little fortune, she sends him away from court. The Elizabeth that we meet in this book is just entering middle-age, experiencing the first signs of aging, and having to deal with the wandering eye of the love of her life, Robert Dudley. And then there is Mary, Queen of Scots who is a constant threat through the machinations of the Duke of Norfolk and other Catholic nobles. Feeling that her life is spinning out of control, Elizabeth tries to control the things that she can, namely the love lives of her maids of honor. This Elizabeth is not always admirable or likeable, but Barnhill does an excellent job of letting the reader into to her psyche through her talks with Blanche Parry. These sections of the book come between chapters and are narrated in the first person while the rest of the book is told in third person, mainly through the eyes of Mary Shelton.
I really liked Mary; she is hard-headed, stubborn but also loyal and intelligent. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, but she also has her sweet and vulnerable moments and at times she’s wise beyond her years. The love story between Mary and Sir John Skydemore (or Scudamore according to Wikipedia) is touching, tender and funny. I truly believed their love story. The relationship between the two grows slowly. Sir John is a widower who is twelve years Mary’s senior when the book starts. I confess that when he first expressed his interest in Mary, I had to remember that 15 was not too young to be married. There are no villains in the book per se, although the Earl of Oxford comes across as a thoroughly despicable character. Barnhill’s portrait of him will convince you that there is no way that this man wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare! He has about as much depth as a wading pool.
The last section of the book kept me on tenterhooks as events spiraled out of control. This was the section where I really had difficulty liking Elizabeth. Her motivations were incredibly petty and could have cost and innocent man’s life. One can see echoes of her father, Henry VIII, in her actions. She proves to definitely be her father’s daughter.
The book is filled with minute details of the lives of the maids of honor, the enormous preparations need for the Queen’s summer progresses around the country, her nightly beauty rituals, and the clothes. At times, I felt that these details slowed the book down, and were repetitive. The reader is told over and over again, how draining it is, and how cramped the quarters often are.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a pleasant way to spend the last few days of winter, curled up in bed with a good book, or a good Nook in my case.
About the author: Anne Clinard Barnhill (http://anneclinardbarnhill.com/) has been writing or dreaming of writing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has published articles, book and theater reviews, poetry, and short stories. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like growing up with an autistic sister. Her work has won various awards and grants. Barnhill holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Besides writing, Barnhill also enjoys teaching, conducting writing workshops, and facilitating seminars to enhance creativity. She loves spending time with her three grown sons and their families. For fun, she and her husband of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance.