Lost Mother

Michael Dobson

  • In My End Is My Beginning: A Life of Mary Queen of Scots by James Mackay
    Mainstream, 320 pp, £20.00, March 1999, ISBN 1 84018 058 7
  • Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation by Jayne Elizabeth Lewis
    Routledge, 259 pp, £14.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 415 11481 0
  • Ancestry and Narrative in 19th-Century British Literature: Blood Relations from Edgeworth to Hardy by Sophie Gilmartin
    Cambridge, 281 pp, £37.50, February 1999, ISBN 0 521 56094 2

We are proud of the national sentiment in Scotland which is associated with the name of Mary Queen of Scots. A simple chronicle of her sufferings was the first tale of sorrow over which we wept ... In graver manhood we are not ashamed to acknowledge, that we cannot peruse the volumes of her wrongs without emotion. This feeling, while it shall endure, and pervade the bulk of our population, may be held as a proof that loyalty, and the love of justice, and hatred of oppression, are among our permanent national characteristics.

So wrote one of Sir Walter Scott’s anonymous competitors in the preface to The Court of Holyrood: Fragments of an Old Story (1822), neatly describing the emotional dynamic by which narratives about Mary Queen of Scots, such as this historical romance itself, could be used to serve the purposes of contemporary Scottish patriotism. The Scots are defined as the quintessentially sentimental readers of their national heroine’s text, their properly tearful response to Mary’s remembered victimhood proving their Scottishness, and her belated vindication supplying an implicit focus for their collective self-assertion. In the age of post-Revolutionary national movements, Mary becomes an analogue of Marianne (emblem of her people’s liberty, for whom the fraternal citizenry are willing to shed their blood), or even of Marie-Antoinette (personification of her country’s violated old order, to be defended by a thousand chivalric swords). Either way, The Court of Holyrood offers Mary as a sexily vulnerable icon, around whom a brotherhood of modern national subjects are confidently expected to rally.

Remarkably, some Scots still find in Mary Stuart an embodiment of their own aspirations – despite modern prejudices against absolute monarchy and murder. James Mackay, for example, prefaces his own account of the Queen with similar remarks about her current significance:

I make no apology for offering this fresh look at Mary. Writing in the aftermath of the devolution debate and referendum, I have been forcibly struck by the application of so much that was happening in the 1560s to the present time. I had not fully appreciated, for example, the extent to which Queen Elizabeth, both personally and through her ministers, agents and ambassadors, manipulated and controlled the affairs of Scotland ... In 1603, when James VI became James I of England, Scotland lost her resident monarch. Little more than a century later, ‘a parcel of rogues’ sold their nation’s political independence. With the restoration of some measure of autonomy now imminent, a fresh look at the reign of Mary becomes vital to a better understanding not only of what happened long ago but where we stand today.

Yet it’s the familiarity of Mackay’s perspective, not its alleged freshness, that makes his book significant. In My End Is My Beginning simply repackages much of the currently received wisdom about Mary by appending some of the currently received wisdom about Scottish national identity. Mackay himself has nothing distinctive to say about either: most of his account of the Queen’s life is paraphrased from Antonia Fraser’s 1969 biography, as many newspapers pointed out when his book came out last year, and he is no more original on Scottish nationalism than the title of one of his previous biographies, William Wallace: Brave Heart, would suggest. (His introduction, for example, parrots the lament that ‘the Scots share with the Basques and the Kurds the unenviable distinction of being a nation without having a sovereign, independent state,’ while failing to notice that this distinction is shared by the English.)

Mackay shares with his early 19th-century predecessor a desire to find in Mary a traduced national heroine whose time at last has come – although he acknowledges that Mary died a martyr not so much to Scottish independence as to the union between Scotland and England which her son James VI and I would attempt and her great-great-granddaughter Anne (assisted by that parcel of rogues) would finally achieve. If the 16-year-old Mary hadn’t prematurely tried to invent the United Kingdom by having herself proclaimed in Paris as rightful ‘Queen of Scotland, England and Ireland’ within days of Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, and hadn’t then incorporated the English royal quarterings into her personal heraldry, her second cousin might have been more able to let her alone later on. Mackay’s vision of Mary as royal patron of the SNP is palpably at odds with such political objectives as can be deduced from her six turbulent and incompetent years in Scotland and equally difficult to reconcile with her cultural allegiances. Always regarded as a Frenchified interloper by those of her subjects less committed to the Auld Alliance, Mary signed herself ‘Marie’ all her life. Had her first husband Francis II not died without producing an heir, ‘Scotland,’ Mackay concedes, ‘might have become a French appanage.’ Despite all this In My End Is My Beginning prefers to suggest that a misunderstood proto-liberalism was more responsible for the Queen’s problems at home than her devout Francophilia, her unswerving Catholicism and her disastrous marital adventures; and Mackay, determined above all to sell his book as topical, depicts her as presciently committed both to present-day Scotland’s distinctive Scottishness and to its religious diversity – two qualities which, he concludes, ‘Mary Queen of Scots, whose own spirit of tolerance and ecumenism was so far ahead of her times, would surely have approved.’

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