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First Lady Bess
Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth - Mary S. Lovell
Member Name: ryeb
Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth - Mary S. Lovell
Advantages: Balanced, well written, and entertaining
Disadvantages: Large number of "characters" with similar names
My dad loves reading books on the subject of history. So when I first saw a new biography about a character I knew he admired - Bess of Hardwick- I thought he would enjoy reading it. Unfortunately he had the same idea, and bought it for himself. So I decided to keep the book to read myself and put it on my bookshelf where it has stayed unread up to now. I am pleased that I re-discovered it, as it proved to be a suprisingly interesting read.
WHO WAS BESS OF HARDWICK?
According to the book, the second most imortant woman in England in the time of Elizabeth the First, bar the Queen herself. I knew only sketchy details of Bess' life before I read the book, and most of that I had forgotten. She is often referenced in books about womens role in past societies, due to the fact she came to wield more influence and wealth that is often considered normal for her day. Part of this came from the fact she married influential men, and later became the grandmother of a possible claimant to Elizabeth's throne - the Lady Arbella Stuart. We also now remember her for building the first Chatsworth house. One of her husbands acted for many years as the jailer of Mary Queen of Scotts, who was kept in another one of Bess' homes, so she was a first hand witness to some of the most important events of her day. It isn't really necessary to know much about that period of time to enjoy the book, as the various events that figure in the life of Bess are clearly explained by the author, and she doesn't presume on any previous knowedge.
A WORTHY CANDIDATE FOR A BIOGRAPHY?
The author, Mary S Lovell, had previously written other biographies with subjects such as the Mitford sisters. I have not read these, but I would be inclined to as I like her clear writing style. In the introduction, the author deals with the question of whether another book about Bess was needed, as she had already been the subject of several biographies. She argues that many of these books carry a one sided view of Bess. It is true that in older history books I have read, any mention of Bess is usually on the unflattering side. She is portrayed as obsessed with wealth, ambitious and scheming. This is probably due to the fact she married five times, always chosing a partner wealthier and better connected than the last. There also seems a tendency to talk about Bess more in relation to her husbands career, than her own achievements. Mary Lovell was given access to many documents/letters writen by and to Bess, some of which were not available to previous biographers. These allow her to present new facts, and correect some mistakes. The author manages to make even extracts of Bess' account books interesting, as she is expert at reading between the lines, without stretching credibility. For example, she notes that when Bess first started to keep accounts for her first husband, he initially checked and "signed off" her figures. Soon she was trusted to keep the books herself, which meant responsibilty for managing large sums of money. Elsewhere the author notes that the so called cold and unfeeling Bess made frequent and generous gifts to the poor, and bought many little personal gifts for her grandchildren or the children of her servants. Overall, I feel this is a balanced biography.
The second reason for writing the book, was to provide more of a glimpse into the early years of Bess which are usually skipped over. The trouble is that there are few sources that give any idea of what her childhood was like, so the author has to rely on describing a general Tudor childhood for someone of Lady Hardwicke's situation. I think this is unavoidable really, and these chapters are still an interesting part of the book. I have often heard Bess described as someone who came from humble origins, but the book showed that the truth isn't quite that simple. She was actually descended from Edward I, and her family could count upon noble connections, even if they were "gentleman farmers" themselves. The most dramatic events, from poisioning incidents to attempted murders, take place when Bess is older, and therefore take up most of the book.
There is nothing dry about the author's writing style. It would probaby be difficult to make the subjects life seem dull considering the events that take place, but even so, the author manages to keep things moving along without skipping over the explainations needed too put it all in context. Due to the large number of marriages undertaken by Bess, and a good number of stepchildren she acquired, the cast of "characters" is quite long. There were times when I would have liked a "who's who" to have been included, but flicking back a few pages got me through. I liked the fact that there is a brief final chapter explaining what happened to some of these people after the the death of Bess. There are also a few colour pictures within the book, some of Bess, others of her family. I was struck by the fact that Bess had quite an individual look, somewhat different from the usual slightly styliised portraits of the time. Even without an image, I think Mary Lovell has done a great job of bringing Bess and her world alive.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE BOOK?
I think that anyone interested in the Elizabethan era would be enjoy this. Bess corresponded with many of the major figures of the time, including Queen Elizabeth's ministers Walsingham and Burghley, and some of those lettters are included here. Her role in significant events such as the captivity of Mary Queen of Scots, would be another reason to read the book. I enjoyed reading it myself, and feel I understand much more of those events, despite having read many other titles on the subject. I have also been persuaded to buy a biography of Bess' granddaughter, Arbella, who features heavily in the last part of this biography, as her life was made to sound so dramatic in it's own right. It is by a different author, and Mary Lovell will certainly be a hard act to follow. I recommend her book to any history enthusiast.
Summary: A balanced biography of a fascinating lady