REVIEW: Lady Mary by Lucy Worsley

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Lady Mary by Lucy Worsley

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages

Release date: 5 April 2018

Amazon UK | Waterstones

More than anything Mary just wants her family to stay together; for her mother and her father – and for her – to all be in the same place at once. But when her father announces that his marriage to her mother was void and by turns that Mary doesn’t really count as his child, she realises things will never be as she hoped.

Things only get worse when her father marries again. Separated from her mother and forced to work as a servant for her new sister, Mary must dig deep to find the strength to stand up against those who wish to bring her down. Despite what anyone says, she will always be a princess. She has the blood of a princess and she is ready to fight for what is rightfully hers.

 

“A princess has to be seen to be believed.”

Everyone remembers her as Bloody Mary, the religious fanatic with an iron fist who burned hundreds of Protestants within five years on the throne. And maybe Mary Tudor was an ardent Catholic who succumbed to extremism, maybe she was eventually as cruel as her moniker implies (but she really wasn’t, compared to her father), but she was once a young woman disowned by her father and betrayed by her “friends.” This one’s for her.

We hear about Queen Elizabeth all the time: Shakespeare, the Golden Age, two Oscar nominations for Cate Blanchett. Been there, done that. So I was intrigued by a YA novel purporting to focus on her much less acclaimed sister, Mary–not only that, but a novel that promised to deliver a historically faithful rendition of Lady Mary, nothing glamourised or removed. I wasn’t disappointed.

Lady Mary covers a lot of ground, beginning with nine-year-old Princess Mary, adored by the court and beloved by her mother Catalina of Aragon, and ultimately ending with 21-year-old Mary, ready to return to court after years of effective exile and play the game. The expansive scope has its upsides and downsides: We get to see over a decade of Mary’s life compressed into less than 400 pages, but many of her experiences end up feeling rushed.

In particular, I feel that her evolution over the years could have been more convincing. 18-year-old Mary doesn’t feel different enough from 14-year-old Mary, in terms of the way she thinks and her ability to perceive the politics going on around her. That’s not to say she’s dim, because she isn’t, but her lack of access to information is often frustrating and interesting at the same time.

Frustrating, because you wish she wouldn’t be powerless like she largely is. Interesting, because although I didn’t necessarily buy into the propaganda of Mary as a vicious ruler, I’d never thought of Mary as the pawn she is in this book. I don’t say “pawn” in a bad way, since that’s essentially her status throughout Lady Mary, which covers the roughest parts of her life. It’s certainly more realistic than a pseudo-historical teenage Mary doing exciting stuff and making power plays. The real Mary’s life, after all, was probably 90% everyday drudgery.

To its credit, Lady Mary preserves the nitty-gritty aspect of real life while still keeping the story compelling. Things that aren’t shoehorned into this book include:

a) Bad romance
Because, well, Mary would never have stood for that. This trope is averted quite sneakily. I wouldn’t necessarily have been against any romantic relationship, but to sell it within a historically faithful novel without coming off as cheap would have been hard. Mary Tudor doesn’t suffer fools.

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b) Unnecessary drama
This isn’t Showtime. Even if I do love Sarah Bolger’s performance, whoever said that nobody ever watched The Tudors for the history has a pretty good point.

c) Girl on girl hate
There was plenty of that going on between Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine, at least in the sense that they were 16th century political rivals. Lucy Worsley could just as easily, and plausibly, have extended the animosity to Mary and Elizabeth (admittedly an infant for most of the book), but instead, she brings out Mary’s sympathetic side in spades. Several situations that initially appear hostile unfold to be more multi-faceted, because Worsley’s Mary isn’t a rash fanatic.

So there you have it, the pitfalls that Lady Mary deftly avoids. If there’s one reservation I do have about Mary’s characterisation, it’s that she’s almost too nice. It’s hard to believe that this demure, kindhearted girl is the one who eventually signs all those death warrants to burn heretics at the stake.

That is, except for the few instances, clever enough that I can’t tell if they’re even intentional, when the fire comes out.

“Mary certainly felt, her thoughts in turmoil as they were, that she could blaze at anybody today.”

There we go.

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*Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*

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