At first, keeping a ward of Queen Elizabeth seemed like an honor and a boon. If she had only been a confined guest for a short time, she might have very well been. Alas for the Talbots the young queen initially being sheltered from those rampaging Scots quickly becomes an object of suspicion and intrigue. As the English court dithers about what to do with her, she hangs as a millstone around the neck of the Talbots. She’s a very royal creature, Mary; Queen Consort of France, Queen Regnant of Scotland, and — shall England be added to the list? It could, for Mary has Tudor roots, and that posits a problem for Good Queen Bess and an opportunity for her enemies. How easy would it be to justify overthrowing a spinster queen reigning over a schismatic church , replacing her with a merry young princess who Europe loves and who is perfectly capable of producing a few proper heirs? She’s a lightening rod for trouble, this Mary, and maybe it’s just as well that she’s in England, under watchful eyes. Mary’s royal appetites, however — the size of her staff, her curious insistence on bathing her face in white wine — are going to drive her guardians into bankruptcy if she doesn’t get them killed first. Although the model of saintliness to her hosts, Mary is constantly writing letters and scheming ways to escape to Scotland and regain her throne, or even to claim Elizabeth’s. England’s leaders aren’t blind to this, and they have a spy within the house that casts suspicion on Shrewsberry himself. For his part, he is slowly smitten by Mary, and doubly so when people keep asking him pointed questions. What has she done to make them so angry, poor innocent lamb? Eventually things go south, of course, and this being Tudor England it ends in executions.
There’s a lot going on this novel. It’s historical fiction, and Tudor drama gives an immediate kind of soap opera drama. Personal and political are mixed; Elizabeth’s advisers want to keep a close eye on Mary, but her presence in England heightens her threat. Throughout the book the Earl of Shrewsberry is gradually seduced by Mary; not sexually but in a style reminiscent of courtly love. He wants to be her knight in shining armor, even though her whims are destroying the fortune his wife has painstakingly built up and his defensiveness regarding Mary erodes his reputation at court. Mary is playing him like a lyre, though, as her own chapters reveal to the reader. I’d expected this to be sympathetic, and the book does make her out to seem a utterly lovely creature much of the time, but…jellyfish are also pretty. They are no less deadly for it, and when Mary is finally tossed into the tower and dispatched the only person I felt sorry for was Bess. I may give Gregory another try or two; soap operas aren’t much my style, but she has a great variety of works out there from the looks of it. She certainly succeeds in bringing to life again a long-dead queen.