Does a biographer have to like her subject?


Mary Queen of Scots is a woman of controversy. Some consider her a romantic heroine, others an unscrupulous, power-hungry murderess. Finding this dichotomy fascinating, I decided to look deeper into who Mary really was. After all, she belongs to the rare of species of women who played part in shaping history. Sadly, there are not many of those.

I started my investigation with Jenny Wormald’s Mary Queen of Scots.

I’d better confess from the start that I had an ulterior motive too. As any writer who won’t miss an opportunity when she sees it, I intend to use my research into Mary as a starting point for an alternative history novel. I will chronicle here my findings and progress, and see what comes of it.

Back to Mary. I have a feeling that if she were alive today, she could be a huge protagonist of the #metoo movement. She was manipulated, used and abused by almost every man who crossed her path. I am not alleging that she was without fault. She was good at applying her considerable personal charm to survive in the era of religious wars, political rivalry with her bastard half-brother James, and Elizabeth, her steel-willed cousin occupying English throne with rather shaky legitimacy credentials. Mary put up a good fight but ultimately she had lost against all of them.

Reading Jenny Wormald’s book, I got the distinct impression that the author simply dislikes Mary. She seems to believe that Mary deserved her fate and had asked for it through her actions and failures to act. I use that phrase she asked for it purposefully. It brings to mind #metoo. Admittedly, Wormald wrote the book in the eighties. Those were different times, different mores.

In closing chapters, Wormald makes a disclaimer that the book is about Mary as a queen, not as a woman. But can you truly divorce the two? Mary’s femininity is very much a part, if not the cause of her tragedy. That’s where her vulnerabilities lay in contrast with Elizabeth I (whom I like to compare to Margaret Thatcher, precisely because Elizabeth would not be defined by her gender and rejected the expectations that come with being a woman. Just as Thatcher she ruled with an iron fist of a man). Mary was a woman first, and a ruler, second.

Can that be held against her?

Five hundred years ago, yes. But today? I wonder. Mary wasn’t cut out to rule a country, but should she carry the whole blame for her failure to succeed. How about those men who surrounded her, advised her, guided her, made her promises and broke them, led her up the garden path to her death? Don’t they deserve their own reckoning?


  1. Knowing very little about Mary beyond the headline facts, I read the Antonia Fraser biog a few years ago. Such a fascinating period and a fascinating and flawed character (but then who isn’t?). In that account, as far as I recall, Elizabeth was not immune to being manipulated by more hawkish forces.

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    • Absolutely. I think both women were surrounded by nasty scavengers and shadowy players. Elizabeth dealt with them more efficiently. How did you find Antonia Fraser’s biog? I am about to start Roderick Graham’s.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anna! It’s awhile ago, and it was a big book! I finished it so I had to have enjoyed it. My recall of the detail is patchy, but at the time I was reading it, the scholarship seemed very thorough.

        Liked by 2 people

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