Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, by John Guy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

The sixteenth century has a good claim to be the ultimate retro SF setting. Sir Thomas More's Utopia is a sort of proto-SF, and da Vinci was designing cool technogadgets. Science itself was just taking recognizable form. On the fantasy side of the bookstores, Amadis of Gaul inspired nearly as many knockoffs as Lord of the Rings, till Cervantes blew up the genre. Above all, of course, the 16th century is a time when men really did set out to discover a New World and new civilizations, and conquer them. No Prime Directive back then, but the royal arms of Spain were and are magnificently SF: the Pillars of Hercules with the motto Plus Ultra – More Beyond!

In another contemporary note, 16th century Europe had a remarkable number of women in positions of authority. No one really knows whether Mary Queen of Scots inspired the nursery rhyme, which isn't recorded till 1744, but she plausibly may have. I have a curious bit of a love-hate relationship with her. I have a far higher opinion of her English counterpart and enemy, Good Queen Bess. I saw the movie 'Young Bess' as a kid, too young to fully appreciate Jean Simmons, but old enough to figure that any princess who thought ships were cool, was cool. Yet when I came around to try my own hand at a 16th century princess, Catherine de Guienne of Lyonesse ended up far more like Mary – Mary 2.0, as it were, with a few bugs worked out.

I have previously written elsewhere about Mary Queen of Scots and her 'social network.' (Click on the radial bubbles). Technically she became queen when she was a week old. Much colorful politics – i.e., bloodshed – ensued, but Mary herself was bundled off at age five to safety in France. By 1560 she was age 19 and a widowed ex-queen of France (not, for once, by violence). Rather than spend the rest of her life as a decorative has-been at the French royal court Mary decided to head back to Scotland and try her hand at being a real queen.

And at first she made an impressively good job of it. She didn't exactly rule Scotland, which at that time was much like Afghanistan without burqas. The most influential man in the country was the Protestant reformer John Knox, who had just recently written a pamphlet called The Monstrous Regiment of Women. This is not as SFnal as it sounds: 'Regiment' then meant 'rule,' and Knox's pamphlet was a screed about how women had no business running kingdoms. He and Mary did not get along, but you'll have to read about it elsewhere because I haven't filled in that part of her Emmet network.

Mary's other early challenge was the Scottish nobility, equal opportunity traitors and all-round treacherous snakes. She raised an army, rode at its head with a pistol in her belt, and put a couple of rebel lords' heads on pikes. This did not reduce the others to obedience, but at least got them to take notice that Scotland had a monarch – a useful first step in nation building.

So far so good, not to mention first rate story material. Unfortunately for Mary, though not for writers, in the spring of 1564 a cousin of hers showed up at her court in Edinburgh. His name was Henry Stuart, but everyone knows him as Lord Darnley. From this point on the standard version of her story becomes Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Mary fell in love, and in three months they were married. The marriage went downhill. Within a couple of years Darnley was dead, narrowly escaping a modern assassination attempt by bomb only to end up dead by old fashioned strangulation. Mary, after another marriage, imprisonment by rebels, escape, and assorted treachery and swordplay, fled to England. There she was imprisoned and eventually axed by another cousin, Elizabeth I.

Which brings me – at length – to John Guy's biography. Scottish himself, he is unabashedly sympathetic to Mary, and sets out to write a 'revisionist' version of her story. He wants to give her back her reputation, showing that she was neither a sex crazed murderess nor even an airhead bimbo. For example, Guy argues that while she did have a brief infatuation for Darnley, she got over him in a few weeks. She married him anyway, but that was dynastic politics, not hot monkey love. (Darnley had a credible claim to the English succession.) Later, Guy calls on previously little-examined source materials to challenge most conventional details of Darnley's assassination, in a way that clears Mary of complicity.

I don't remotely possess the scholarly toolkit to evaluate all of this. (If the author made it up out of whole cloth, how would I know?) But this isn't really a problem in Guy's book, because in the death cagematch between scholarly integrity and historical revisionism, scholarly integrity wins hands down. If Guy is correct, a fair number of details in what I wrote for Emmet are wrong, but the core remains unchanged. After a good start, Mary's rule did go to hell in a handbasket, mainly because of her bad decisions regarding her love life – and Guy, gritting his teeth perhaps, admits as much.

Mary's real problem wasn't just bad judgment, but the fact that hereditary monarchy is a political system that takes sex out of the bedroom and puts it in the history books. Kings rarely had serious trouble because they got married. (The ones who did, like Edward II, already had other problems, namely general ineptitude.) Ruling queens faced a much tougher challenge. Isabella of Castile made a very rare political success of marriage. So, later on, did Catherine the Great, but only because if it was Good to be King, it was even better to be Tsar, or Tsaritsa. Even Elizabeth I was not quite successful – by not marrying at all she avoided the usual pitfalls, but at the price of falling down on one crucial part of the monarchical job, namely providing a royal heir. (Until, at the very end of her reign, she gave the quiet nod to James I/VI, ironically the son of Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley.)

In short, I recommend this book, alongside Antonia Fraser's standard treatment. More generally, if you are a science fiction or fantasy geek, and you probably are, you should really treat yourself to some tourism in the 16th century. You wouldn't want to live there, but it's a great place to visit.


Anonymous said...

The 16th Century is a great resource for all sorts of SF writers. Actually history in general is a great resource for Sf writers.

Neat points about the 16th C.

- A Western Civilization very different from our own, but still comprehensible to modern readers.

- Changes in political organization, lifestyle, and technology that force institutions and individuals to run just to keep up.

- Contact with a whole series of distant civilizations, and a massive rush for power in a 'new' world.

Actually I think that first point is the most important. If you want to learn how to make something highly specific - Utterly dependent on culture and ingrained attitudes - seem completely universal, Shakespeare has a lot to teach you. Marlowe and Nashe are good as well.

John Guy's book sounds interesting. I'll have to check that out.


Rick said...

Obviously I agree with all of your points! Especially, as you note, the first. The 16th century is the pivot point between the medieval world and the early modern era. In story terms you can legitimately have, say, both mounted knights and broadside-armed sailing ships - Robin Hood meets Pirates of the Caribbean. How cool is that?

In general I'd argue that knowing history matters more for writing most SF than knowing science. Ideally both! But a little artful vagueness will protect against most science howlers, while there is no substitute for knowing how people respond to their circumstances.

Carla said...

Yes, I sometimes wonder if Mary felt she'd stepped through a time-travel portal when she left Renaissance France for Scotland!

If Darnley was a marriage of dynastic politics, it was a high-risk strategy. Combining two weak claims to the English throne was bound to cause trouble with Elizabeth - and I can't help feeling that even at the time the smart money would have been on Elizabeth.

Anonymous said...

Carla - True, but it wouldn't have been the first high-risk gamble in dynastic politics. When two weak claims are all you have, why not combine them? Elizabeth wasn't really known for warm family feelings or a sense of forgiveness (Although she wasn't the sociopath of modern portrayals, and she had good cause not to trust her family). Mary and Darnley may well have thought they were playing Damned If You Do Damned If You Don't.

I have to admit though that the 16th Century isn't really my strong point, so my quick thoughts are probably completely off the mark. Ask me about the Victorians.


Rick said...

The whole thing about Mary and the English succession is odd. She was Catholic but no zealot (at any rate not till she became Elizabeth's prisoner and hoped for a Catholic uprising).

She got off on the wrong foot with Elizabeth through no fault of her own, the French having proclaimed her as Queen of England. Guy speculates that once in Scotland she wanted the English succession nod to strengthen her domestic standing, given the institutional weakness of the Scottish throne.

But it doesn't seem to have gotten through to her that Elizabeth was not about to name a successor formally, knowing how opposition to 'Bloody' Mary I had centered on her. For both dynastic prospects and her position in Scotland, being on good terms with Elizabeth was far more useful than anything on paper would be.

Carla - I imagine Scotland was quite a shock! But in the early going she did remarkably well there.

Carla said...

Ian - Yes, it's hard to come up with anyone Mary could have married who wasn't high-risk. I think she got a very bad bargain with Darnley, though! My feeling is that it was an emotional decision "made in haste and repented at leisure". She wouldn't have been the first, or the last. The marriage that puzzles me most is Bothwell, unless she was exhausted by then and just wanted to hand the whole mess over to someone else.

Rick - She did, but then she was good at crises. She did well even after the Darnley debacle, and I wonder if she might have got through it if she hadn't married Bothwell. I think she might even have got through after Bothwell, if she'd ditched him and holed up in the south-west (as she was advised) and patiently waited for enough of the factions to get fed up with Moray, instead of taking the dramatic option of fleeing to England. I wonder if she was one of those people who thrive on drama but hate the day-after-day-after-day grind of political intrigue. She also seems to me to have been looking for someone to trust absolutely, and politics doesn't work that way (ssomething Elizabeth understood in spades, having learned the hard way).

Rick said...

Carla - I'd been about to add a reply about how odd it was, given her upbringing, that she handled the wild Scots lords pretty well (till near the end), but ran aground dealing with sophisticated Elizabeth.

But you make a good point that most writers seem to agree with, that she was good at keeping her head in a crisis, not so good at long term planning, strategy, and intrigue - which is how she, well, lost her head. The first of these is what I stole for Catherine, because of the obvious story advantages. :-)

Your point about lacking the patience to outlast Moray fits very well with what Guy has to say, that even after Bothwell her support from most of the population remained strong. The 'burn the whore' shouting came from a rent-a-crowd, not the population of Edinburgh.

Anonymous said...

The drama-queen idea seems plausible. A quick look at the online material supports the idea of someone with a habit of making awful decisions when they have all the time in the world to make a better decision. And then sticking with those decisions when it would clearly be in their own interests to change their mind. Dramatists also have a habit of looking for someone to rescue them from the chaos.

Combine the excitement of her early years with an adolescence as a noble-in-exile and her status as target of more powerful schemers... She could very well have had no idea how to function without drama.

I'll definitely have to check out that John Guy book. The internet is useful for quick references, but it's lousy for in-depth study.


Rick said...

Not unrelated to drama-ness, Mary was prone to mood swings, taking to her bed for a couple of weeks in the face of setbacks that couldn't be solved on horseback.

Since 'psychohistory' in the modern sense of psychoanalyzing historical figures strikes me as dubious as Asimov's kind, diagnosing bipolar syndrome or the like is more than iffy. But whatever the reason her mood swings did her no good. And even Guy admits that - much unlike Elizabeth - she had no taste for study or learning that could teach her a big picture perspective.

Still the oddest thing to me, in context, is her early success in Scotland. It would be no surprise for a young woman raised as a French princess to crash & burn in Scotland, but you'd expect it to happen quickly, not after four years of handling her situation pretty well.

The internet is useful for quick references, but it's lousy for in-depth study. Words to be engraved in every classroom! I hope that kids who are really interested in a subject figure this out.

Carla said...

Mary had tremendous personal charm. That perhaps goes with the vivacious drama-queen personality as well. I wonder if half the Scots lords fell a little bit in love with her the moment she arrived - as her biographers still seem to do :-) - and were prepared to be nice to her, more or less, until she married Darnley. Then when she did marry somebody else, especially Darnley (who seems to have been, um, a jerk), some of them felt rejected and there may have been a measure of personal affront in their reaction. As well as the rational objection that Mary had shown poor judgment in marrying Darnley and landing them with a king who had all the sense of a tyrannical toddler.

Mary's mood swings seem to have borne some resemblance to events - she took to her bed in fits of depression and lethargy mostly when stuff had gone wrong, rather than for no reason at all - so I would guess that she had a volatile personality rather than a clinical disorder, but who's to say? You're right that her mood swings would have earned her no friends. Drama may be exciting and attractive to begin with, especially when displayed by a pretty woman, but the appeal wears off after a while.

Good point that Mary was bright without being particularly intellectual, whereas Elizabeth had a first-rate mind. Elizabeth could see several moves ahead, Mary seems to have been hopeless at foreseeing consequences. Antonia Fraser says somewhere in her biography that Mary had a slightly childish love of secrets and intrigue, and that fits with my view of Mary, that she never quite grew up.

Your Catherine seems to me to have some of Mary's charm, courage, vivacity and capacity for thriving on adrenaline, coupled with some of Elizabeth's intelligence. (And the good luck to have a suitable candidate for husband, which neither Mary nor Elizabeth did).

Rick said...

Charming and pretty surely helped on a first-impression level! She sort of seduced me, too, though I only realized it in retrospect. (Which perhaps is how most successful seductions work!)

'Never quite grew up' seems like a good summary. And goes in spades for Darnley! Antonia Fraser speculates, IIRC, that she was not so much in love with Darnley as with the idea of being in love, a very adolescent reaction.

If Guy is right that she'd already cooled on Darnley, marrying him was an even more unfathomable mistake, because she'd already be aware that he was a loose cannon.

Giving my Catherine a non-disastrous marriage prospect is perhaps the biggest fantasy element in the story. :-) In the real world, as you note, workable hubbies for reigning queens were exceedingly thin on the ground.

Isabella of Castile is the great exception, and it is too bad there isn't much on her readily available in English. The one bio I know of is described as having 'pedestrian writing,' which I can attest to - I never made it through the book. But Izzy seems to have been as bold as Mary and as shrewd as Bess. Great story material, you'd think!

Carla said...

What's Guy's evidence for his argument that Mary had already fallen out of love with Darnley before the wedding? If true, it makes the marriage look inexplicable, unless she just didn't want to lose face. Whereas if she fell out of love after the wedding, even if only the day (or the night) after, it makes perfect sense to me.

I'd forgotten the comment about being in love with the idea of being in love. That fits very well indeed. It's easy to forget how young Mary was - 22 or 23? - and given her sheltered upbringing as a French princess she'd probably never had to grow up and take real responsibility for anything, so she may well have been younger than her age, if you follow me.

Yes, you were a benign author with that one :-) (In rather the same way, the element that marks out Ingeld's Daughter as a fantasy is the revolution that achieves real change....)

Isabella's situation was unusual in that the neighbouring kingdom and natural ally (Aragon) happened to be headed by a single man of marriageable age. If Edward VI had lived, he'd have been a similar candidate for Mary and the union of crowns might have been brought forward 50 years.

Rick said...

I don't remember Guy's evidence that Mary had already cooled, and I've returned the book to the library. But he pretty much implied that she didn't want to lose face. Better to lose face than lose your whole head! But it would be typical of immature thinking not to realize that the embarrassment would fade, while marrying Darnley would leave her stuck with him.

Mary's life in the French court was indeed not designed to foster either critical thinking or self-reliance. And a critical difference from Catherine, who grows up in a para-French court, but as a rather unwanted and inconvenient foreign princess, not belle o' the ball.

I like 'benign author' - it makes up for all the authors who excessively torment their characters! (And yes, revolutions that really change something are also rather ... magical.)

Jim Baerg said...

Speaking of Isabella of Castile:

Have you read _Curse of Chalion_ by Lois McMaster Bujold?

The situation in that fantasy world is deliberately parallel to 15th century Iberia. A major difference is that the Ferdinand & Isabella analogs in the story seem like much nicer people & less likely to go on a rampage of persecution against those with a somewhat different religion.

Rick said...

No - I hadn't heard of it. The Vorkosigan-verse did not quite grab me, but this book definitely sounds like My Sort of Thing. (And not unlike Catherine of Lyonesse in being unabashedly cribbed off of a real historical setting.)

Something for my next library run, when I finish Psychohistorical Crisis.

Jim Baerg said...

In the Vorkosigan-verse there are some rather extensive parallels between the situation of Barrayar after the Time of Isolation & Japan in the late 19th century.

But maybe historical parallels in fiction aren't enough in themselves to make a story appeal to you.

Carla said...

Elizabeth must have learned at the Seymour debacle, if not before, that she had better look out for herself because no-one else was going to. Mary may not have had to learn that until she was a reigning queen, by which time the consequences of a mistake were disastrous. Your Catherine's situation is closer to Elizabeth's in some ways. Growing up in exile, she's on the periphery of a court with no secure place in it, with no shortage of people around who might use her for their own ends. So she learns to look out for herself.

Rick said...

Jim - historical parallels do appeal to me (can you say 'Foundation Trilogy?'). Though my knowledge of Japan is sketchy, and in the one Bujold I read, Cordelia made much more impression on me than Vorkosogan did.

Carla - yes, in having to learn self-reliance early, Catherine is much more like Elizabeth. I'm not quite sure Mary ever did learn. Even sympathetic writers like Guy admit she was far too trusting, especially of her ruthlessly self promoting Guise relatives.

The Guises as a group would make outstanding bad guys, with impressive qualities but usually used for bad ends. (While I grew up learning the 16th century with a Protestant bias, the Guises did the Catholic cause no long term good!)