There’s nothing like the beach to get some reading done. Find a book that one doesn’t mind getting a little sandy, slather the kids in sunscreen, slather oneself in sunscreen, drag a chair out to the sand, send the kids out into the ocean, glance up every half hour or so to make sure no one’s being carried out to sea, go for a dip when it really gets hot, and just watch the pages fly by.
Occupied thusly this weekend, I managed to finish not only two short books I was reading for review purposes, but Margaret George’s 1992 historical novel, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles.
This is a very long book—it takes Mary literally from the cradle to the grave. Nonetheless, it reads quickly and holds the reader’s attention; I seldom found myself skimming.
Most of the novel is told by a third-person narrator, although there are some long stretches of journal-writing by Mary in the last fifth or so. Though Mary’s viewpoint is the predominant one, the narrator occasionally travels to Elizabeth I’s court and into the minds of various other characters as well, including Darnley, Bothwell, and sundry ill-fated spies.
Certainly the outstanding quality of this historical novel is George’s ability to draw characters. Mary herself is depicted sympathetically without ever being idealized; at crucial times in her life, there’s almost always someone to tell her that she's making a mistake, and she listens to them far too seldom. More important, George avoids making caricatures of figures such as Darnley and John Knox. The latter is especially well rounded; harsh as he is on the pulpit, we also see glimpses of him as a loving husband and father.
George has a nice eye for small detail, as when Mary on the last evening of her life prays, only to be distracted by her dog thumping his tail. “It was that everyday sound, the summation of all the everyday things she was leaving, that brought tears to her eyes.”
I did have some reservations here and there. One of the few parts of the novel I found myself skimming was that detailing the love affair between Mary and Bothwell, where the dialogue takes on a decidedly hackneyed tone. When Bothwell uttered the line, “'Put your arms around me, and whatever happens, do not let go,'” I found myself anticipating the couple’s impending separation not at all with regret. Earlier, a three-way sex scene between Darnley, Riccio, and a prostitute struck me as gratuitous, since it had no influence on later events and didn’t enlighten us about the characters of those involved, except to show that Riccio could rise to an occasion, so to speak. But these are minor quibbles and didn’t spoil what I thought was an excellent read.
It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this novel to Reay Tannahill’s Fatal Majesty. The novels take entirely different views of such issues as the authenticity of the Casket Letters and of the circumstances behind the marriage of Mary and Bothwell, yet as I was reading each novel, I was convinced by the case each author made, even while being aware of the possibility of a different interpretation.
So if you’ve waited 14 years to read this novel, like I did, go ahead and read it—don’t make it 15 years.
What to read next? All sorts of things await, thanks to the benevolence of eBay, Amazon, PaperbackSwap, and the U.S. mail, not to mention the library sale the other day.