Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Is it too much to ask of a historical novel that it be, well, historical?

Alas, The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots, soon to be released in paperback, is not.

Never mind that the author, Carolly Erickson, has a PhD in medieval history from Columbia University, or that she has written some fine biographies from the Tudor period including Great Harry and The First Elizabeth. If you want to learn more about the doomed queen on France, Scotland, and (in her mind, at least) England, don't start here.

To be fair, Erickson never claims historical accuracy for her novel. In fact, in a note to the reader at the back of the book, she writes:
Just a reminder that in this historical entertainment, authentic history and imaginative invention are blended, so that fictional events and circumstances, fictional characters and fictional alterations to the past intertwine. Fresh interpretations of past personalities and events are offered, and traditional ones laid aside.
Of course. That's how every historical novelist operates. In my review of Brenda Rickman's The Heretic's Wife, for example, I point out that she gives a biased Protestant interpretation of Sir Thomas More and I suggest that she too easily disregards the religio-political context of her time. Still Rickman, for the most part, sets her story within a real historical framework.

Erickson, by contrast, plays fast and loose with events. She begins by having Bothwell, Mary's third husband, present at her execution, though he is believed to have died nine years earlier. She admits this "whimsy" in her note, as well as other "thick-coming fancies" that "crowd out sober evidence": Mary and Bothwell's island trip, Mary's meeting with Elizabeth, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary's second husband, Darnley. She doesn't mention some of her other fancies: Riccio and Darnley's gay relationship, for example (in reality, Darnley hated Riccio, who was widely believed to be the father of Mary's son).

These are mere peccadilloes, however, compared to her entirely made-up account of Mary's sabbatical from captivity, to which Erickson devotes some 70 pages.

Mary lived in England as Elizabeth's prisoner from 1568 until her execution in 1587. In this novel, notwithstanding, Mary escapes to Rome in 1575, spending two years consorting with the pope and a famous general. She then follows the general to Flanders. When it becomes obvious that he is not going to rescue her, she proceeds to Normandy, where she spends a couple more years with her grandmother and daughter. Eventually she returns to England and begins searching for some letters Elizabeth allegedly wrote to her lover Leicester, proving Elizabeth's complicity in his wife's murder and thus her unsuitability to be queen.

Virtually none of this last third of the book is based on what actually happened. Mary never escaped from her well-guarded house arrest. Even the letters turn the real story inside out. Yes, letters were involved in Mary's trial - but they weren't by or about Elizabeth. Instead, they were allegedly written by Mary to her lover Bothwell, proving her complicity in Darnley's murder and thus her own unsuitability to be queen.

It's easy to understand why Erickson would choose to stray so widely from the historical record. The last 18 years of Mary's 44-year life were, except for a few abortive plots, extremely boring, as critics of Philippa Gregory's The Other Queen have pointed out. No doubt Erickson, who knows her history, decided to have a little fun and spice up the story.

Well, we all know that memoirs aren't necessarily factual, and we expect historical fiction to include invented characters and conversations and events. But we also expect memoirs - even fictional ones - to elucidate a character's inner workings, and we anticipate that historical fiction will bring a long-ago period to life. By building so much of Mary's story on an invented historical framework, Erickson shows us too little of Mary or of the Tudor/Stuart period.

She does, however, give us some charming Scottish ruffians.


Meredith Whitford said...

It sounds as if this should've been marketed as 'alternative history'. In 'real' historical fiction I think it is permissible to invent/embroider on a period of which nothing is known, but still the author should not stray outside what is/would have been possible. As a historical novelist myself, with a new book out soon, I live in terror of someone spotting some clanger (which would usually be owing to my not being able to read my own writing in my research notes), but at least I try to be accurate.

Undine said...

After I began to read this novel, I kept going only out of a perverse curiosity about just *how* weird it could possibly get.

Do you think it's possible--and I'm actually being semi-serious here--that Erickson meant this thing as some sort of joke?

As a satire of ludicrous "historical" fiction, it's positively brilliant. If it isn't, well, then...