🙂 🙂 😐
This novella is a fictionalised re-telling of the real-life murder of David Rizzio, a favourite of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1566. The event is well known in Scotland and many tourists to Edinburgh will have shivered over the “bloodstains” in Mary’s chambers in Holyrood Palace. However the reasons for the murder were murky even at the time and different theories have been put forward ever since. One of the many rumours was that Rizzio was Mary’s lover and that the child with which she was pregnant, who later became James VI of Scotland and I of England, was Rizzio’s rather than her husband, Darnley’s. Mina absolves Mary of this charge (I’m no expert, but I think most historians agree that it was a false rumour), and weaves a political conspiracy that the murder was done by the Protestant Lords to usurp power from the Catholic Mary and set Darnley up as a puppet King in her stead. I’d think that’s far more likely than the jealous lover theory, myself. Mina also goes along with the theory that in fact Darnley and Rizzio had been lovers, a theory agreed to, I believe, by eminent historian and biographer of Mary, John Guy.
So I felt the basic story Mina sets out to tell is as likely to be true as any other. However, the novella is part of a series called Darkland Tales from Polygon, an imprint of independent Scottish publisher, Birlinn. The publishers say: “In Darkland Tales, the best modern Scottish authors offer dramatic retellings of stories from the nation’s history, myth and legend. These are landmark moments from the past, viewed through a modern lens and alive to modern sensibilities.” The “modern sensibility” Mina has used is the idea of misogyny and the subjugation of women to the control of powerful men. Again, I have no problem with this – all of the Queens of that Queenly era had to navigate the patriarchal society with great care to hold onto their power. Some did it by marrying powerful men, like Bloody Mary; some by remaining unmarried, like the Virgin Queen; and it is generally agreed that a lot of Mary QOS’s problems arose from her penchant for marrying unsuitable men.
Where Mina began to lose me was with her modernisation of the thought processes of her characters – they began to feel as if they were too 21st century. I’m not sure that Mary would ever have had a thought that we would recognise as feminist. These Queens fought for their own power and the passing of that power to their sons if they had them, not to liberalise the world for other women, not even their daughters. They did not challenge the patriarchy – they upheld it. Not that Mina has Mary out in the streets with “Votes for Women” placards, but when she (Mina, not Mary) sneered that the Lords were all men, white and entitled, I was forced to grit my teeth. Of course they were “entitled” – they were “titled”. Entitlement in that era wasn’t pejorative as it is now – it was aspirational and came about through loyalty and service to the monarch of the day. Of course they were men – it was a patriarchy that worked on the basis of male primogeniture. And, oh dear, of course they were white. What other colour was there in 16th century Scotland? People of colour were not oppressed or marginalised in Scotland in 1566, for the simple reason that there were none. The issue of white entitlement only becomes a thing when society is not 100% white. Even today, Scotland is 96% white. While some of Mary’s problems were undoubtedly exacerbated by her sex, how many Kings were usurped and murdered too in those days? Her Catholicism was at least as much of an issue as her sex, and she was just as white and entitled as her Lords. So I found the modern sensibilities grated rather than adding any enlightenment to the history.
I also wasn’t sure how well this would work for someone who doesn’t have a working knowledge of this time. In the short space available in the novella form, Mina had to keep background explanations to a minimum, which is fine if the reader knows a little about it. But I didn’t feel she really explained who Rizzio was or what role he had played in Mary’s court, or why the murder happened at that time, or why Mary’s Catholicism was an issue. There are some things that she gives as facts that are really more rumours and/or theories (bearing in mind that some leeway should be allowed in a fictionalised account) and some facts that are simply wrong, for example, that Darnley lived for two years after the murder – in fact, he was dead less than a year later. Theories can be played with – easily verifiable undisputed facts should be correct.
Having said all that, it’s interesting enough and well written, and if treated with caution as to its historical accuracy, it is a tense and vivid account of the event. For that reason, I’d still recommend it, with reservations.
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I would not, however, recommend the audiobook. The narration by Katie Leung is one of the worst I’ve heard. She mangles the pronunciations of names that are familiar, surely, to all Scots – like Mary of Guise or Lord Ruthven. She’s a Dundonian – there’s no excuse for incorrect pronunciation of well-known names from our history. And her characterisations of the Lords are awful. Sure, they wouldn’t have sounded like BBC presenters but they wouldn’t have sounded like parody drunken Glaswegians in a sketch show either. Thank goodness it was short.