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.’

The history of these islands remains profoundly and awkwardly stuck with the affecting tale of Mary Queen of Scots, perhaps the most often retold and reinterpreted set of events in the history of the Scottish and English crowns; and the task which Mackay muffs – of making Mary’s emotional legacy serve the different and conflicting needs of the present – remains as tempting, and as complicated, as it has been over the centuries since her execution. As Mary’s own cryptic motto seemed to prophesy, in her end was her beginning: her grisly death served only to launch the much desired, much denied Queen into secular immortality. She has preoccupied the historical imagination not just of Scotland but of England, and, more ambiguously, of the Britain which from the 1707 Act of Union until very recently claimed to have subsumed both – even though Britain’s national mythology, officially at least, has favoured a different style of heroine. Despite the Victorians’ enthusiasm for weeping over the beheadings of Anne Boleyn or Lady Jane Grey (perhaps a deliberate attempt to embrace a Protestant alternative to Mary’s Popish pathos), the British have in general preferred their emblematic women to remain in one piece. Britannia and her latter-day personifications are supposed to rule the waves, not run around after men and get their heads cut off. Holyrood is regularly presented as the site of nubile and voluptuous suffering, whereas Westminster is much more often imagined as the home of a jubilantly sadistic matron. Hence the resonant success of a recent poster for Madame Tussaud’s which, above a nightmarishly grinning close-up of the waxwork Mrs Thatcher flanked by an old and unamused Queen Victoria and an equally unsmiling Elizabeth I, bore the slogan: ‘Baker Street Madam Offers Domination, Correction and Discipline.’ According to the logic of this advertisement, the commercial basis of the waxworks may tame this fearsome trio by portraying them as prostitutes, but British subjects are still intended to abase themselves before them. At the same time, the poster identifies the bitch-goddess Britain of Victoria’s Empire and Thatcher’s attempted reprise as the direct descendant of Elizabeth’s regime in whose interests Mary Queen of Scots went her slow and inexorable way to the block. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the execution of our founding fellow sufferer should supply Madame Tussaud’s perennially, if guiltily, favourite tableau: disowned mother of the British state, she is the sacrificial victim who has always haunted the national pantheon’s victory procession.

It is this haunting which is the principal subject of Jayne Lewis’s splendid exercise in cultural history, Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation. Although her book sets out to consider the representation of Mary from her own lifetime until the end of the Victorian age, it doesn’t really get into its stride until it comes to the 18th century, and the inception of the Gothic tradition to which Lewis’s pleasantly obsessive, haunted book is itself recognisably allied. It isn’t that Lewis writes badly about the Renaissance: indeed, she performs a far defter and more elegant job of explaining the malign coincidence of dynastic circumstances in which the widowed Mary found herself when she returned to her own kingdom in 1561 than the professed biographer Mackay, and she is always clearer and more readable when retelling the messy sequence of marital and political disasters which led from there to her flight to England in 1568 and ultimately to her execution nearly twenty years later. But Lewis is so much more at home with the Enlightenment and Romantic periods that she seems to read the texts in which Mary’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries sought variously to vindicate and to vilify her with 18th or 19th-century eyes, sometimes to distorting effect. Her account of The Faerie Queene, for example, ‘with its airy title and gossamer cast of characters’, aspiring to ‘the prettiness of allegory, or poetry’s sculpted form’, seems to describe Keats’s Spenser rather than the sometimes violent, often incoherent and always self-conscious poet of the 1590s. Her understanding of Duessa, Mary’s representative in the poem, and of the way she troubles the supposedly placid surface of Book V – ‘what both botches and enables all efforts to turn life into words is of course finally feeling, life’s only, but indelible, trace’ – would be much more appropriate in the case of Richardson or Diderot. Actually, it’s a pretty dubious claim applied to anyone other than the lachrymose protagonist of an 18th-century novel.

This affinity with the heroines of sentimental fiction pays off when Lewis arrives in the 1700s. After the Hanoverian succession, when Mary’s more direct Stuart descendants were barred from the throne and she came to personify the outlawed ancien régime, the continuing torrent of pamphlets, histories, paintings, poems, plays and novels assumed a quality of manic kitsch, and Lewis’s largely psychoanalytic critical vocabulary begins to serve its purpose as she sets about explicating the anxious fascination with the martyred mother to which these half-passionate, half-disavowed texts bear witness. As the conclusion to her section on ‘Stuart Mary’, for instance, she provides a lively account of the intricate emotional manoeuvres performed by John Banks’s splendidly over-the-top costume drama The Island Queens (banned under Charles II in 1684, rewritten and rehabilitated under Anne as The Albion Queens, 1704), during which Mary and her victorious antitype Elizabeth enjoy the first of their many apocryphal but irresistibly dramatic meetings, this one a dreamlike and overwrought affair in which the two queens passionately embrace (‘throw thy lov’d Arms as I do mine about thee,’ cries an unusually affectionate Gloriana). The following section, ‘Georgian Mary’, is even better, particularly its chapter on the eerie identification with Mary displayed by many 18th-century Englishwomen – who chose hairstyles based on her portraits, had themselves painted in replicas of her clothes, and disguised themselves in her likeness at fancy-dress parties. According to Horace Walpole, mid-century masquerades were overrun with ‘dozens of ugly Mary Queen of Scotts’, including on one occasion the Princess of Wales herself, ‘covered with diamonds’.

Some of these women also wrote accounts of Mary’s life and legacies, such as Eliza Haywood’s 1725 ‘secret history’, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, or the gushing account of ‘this bewitching Princess’ at the centre of the young Jane Austen’s unstable parody The History of England. By a partial, ignorantprejudiced Historian (1791). Lewis’s reading of the most compelling of these, Sophia Lee’s three-volume epistolary novel The Recess (1783-85), is the emotional core of her book. Lewis is alive to the grand and labyrinthine absurdity of Lee’s plotting, which details the amorous misfortunes of Mary’s hitherto unknown twin daughters Ellinor and Matilda, who are suggestively raised in a secret cavern directly beneath Elizabeth’s court from which they periodically emerge to become fatally involved with a series of the jealous Queen’s favourites. At the same time she does justice to the imaginative power this matriarchal ancestor of both historical and Gothic fiction still carries, reading it as both ‘an elegy for women’s erasure from history, their exile to some paltry underworld of fantasy and romance’ and as the exemplar of a transhistorical female community enabled by this very erasure:

Lee’s highly idealised, even sanctified, Queen of Scots belongs very much within the sentimental tradition: she lives and does not live, and the story of her life is that of her death. But Lee’s novel is also about the transmission of ambivalent love through time: above all, it shows how this transmission (to which ambivalence itself is key) may take place in history’s recesses. Those recesses exist precisely so that there will be room for the historical subject herself, and it is Mary of all historical figures who most permits them.

Mary, indeed, permits all sorts of things in Lewis’s account of Georgian culture, always in one way or another straining at the limits of representation itself, and inspiring some delightfully tacky early experiments in mixed-media art. These include a 1787 waxwork of her execution, modelled by a moist-eyed clan of Madame Tussaud’s precursors as a 3-D illustration to one particularly moving account of how Mary ‘fell a sacrifice to the personal jealousy of our yellow-pated Bess’: this text ‘struck my family in so forcible and affecting a manner’, explains ‘P.T.’ in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘that they immediately dressed up a beautiful figure, representing the unfortunate Queen, exactly according to her real dress on that fatal day ... and I prevailed upon them to execute the whole scene in the same manner’. Nearly contemporary is the Earl of Abingdon’s Representation of the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots in Four Views(1790), which was rendered still more operatically affecting by the provision of ‘music composed for and adapted to each view’. From these compulsive revisitings of her decapitation it is a short step to the exonerated, sainted Marys of Romanticism – most obviously Schiller’s Maria Stuart and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. (Both these Marys returned to the London stage around the time of the Scottish referendum, presumably in Mackayesque bids for topicality, though it’s worth remarking how oddly off the point both Howard Davies’s production at the National Theatre and Gale Edwards’s at the English National Opera looked.) By 1820 even the committed Protestant and North Briton Walter Scott had to recognise, in The Abbot, this guilty but irresistible heroine as a member of his own and his nation’s psychic family: ‘Who is there, that has not her countenance before him, familiar as that of the mistress of his youth, or the favourite daughter of his advanced age?’

Lewis’s long account of The Abbot, and of the relation between the clutch of discussions of Mary’s morality to which it belongs and the contemporary trials of Queen Caroline, is another excellent piece of work, but by this stage of the book her conclusion that the face Scott imagines for Mary is ‘in essence, the very image of desire’ is pretty much what one would have expected, as is her (questionable) further claim that ‘its persistence in a narrative meant to endorse the world that replaced hers is the persistence of the desire for her and her world to survive, perhaps outside time itself, and certainly outside history.’ The first few times the repressed returns it retains an exciting frisson of the unheimlich, but after that the effect becomes merely bathetic: by the time Lewis gets to the Victorians, Mary’s severed head has long been recognisably akin to that of Mr Dick’s King Charles. Her writing always shows tremendous dash and an infectious intellectual enthusiasm and voracity, but the word ‘desire’ is used in too many senses and contexts, and the same paradoxically deconstructive claims are made about so many different texts that the reader begins to wonder whether the ideas precede the examples rather than vice versa. But one only has to turn to Sophie Gilmartin’s chapter on fictionalised Marys in her Ancestry and Narrative in 19th-century British Literature (which has the misfortune to consider many of the same texts, as well as the parallels with Queen Caroline) to recognise the value of Lewis’s analyses. Gilmartin is perfectly competent and sensible about The Abbot, and more so about Charlotte Yonge’s delightful Unknown to History (1886), but hers is one of those workmanlike, very British academic books which is worthily ‘about’ a topic without ever feeling the need to have an argument. Which is why, disappointingly, the sentence which concludes her chapter on Mary – ‘whether as Scarlet Woman, “tutelary saint”, femme fatale, mother or queen, the Queen of Scotland was an important member of a genealogy of royal women, of a mirror of matriarchy for 19th-century British women’ – only gets her as far as Lewis’s starting-point.

The 19th century, though, marks some neglected opportunities for Lewis as well as Gilmartin. After the rich and dense research Lewis has obviously undertaken for the Renaissance and Enlightenment sections of her book – specialist fields of the rare book libraries, the Clark and the Huntington, to which Lewis (who works at UCLA) has readiest access – the later parts look slightly thinner. It is true that the 19th century offers such an embarrassment of riches that Lewis couldn’t hope to describe it all, and it is equally true that she makes some valuable forays into the lost worlds of historical fiction and narrative verse; she writes especially well about the semi-pornographic visions of Mary offered in the voice of the fatally besotted Chastelard (the French poet who followed Mary Queen of Scots to Scotland and was executed after being found under her bed) by William Henry Ireland and by Swinburne. Even so, there are some notable omissions. It is in vain, for example, that the breathless reader anticipates the fun and games Lewis might have with the sorrows Mary bequeaths to James and to us in the epistolary form of C.F. Barrett’s Mary Queen of Scots, or the Royal Captive of Fotheringay Castle (1810), a work which finds the Queen committing her sensibility to paper almost to the very moment of her execution:

The commissioners have been, they have just read my death warrant, and tomorrow – Gracious Heaven! Elizabeth sheds the blood of one who never injured her. I die to expiate faults, not of my own committing. Oh! my son, never shall I see more a presence which could soothe me in affliction – but hark, they come – I’ll hide these papers – may future ages read and pity me – the fatal moment arrives! – have mercy – Heaven!

As well as The Court of Holyrood, Lewis leaves out Basile the Jester: A Romance of the Days of Mary Queen of Scots (1896), and that worthy successor to the Earl of Abingdon, Mr Templeton’s Musical Entertainment of Mary Queen of Scots (1850), with its chilling finale:

The owls from the battlements cry –
Hollow winds seem to murmur around,
‘O Mary, prepare thee to die!’
My blood it runs cold at the sound!

Nor does she discuss The historical tragedy of Mary, Queen of Scots. By the author of Hamlet, Richard III, Othello, As You like It, etc. Deciphered from the works of Sir Francis Bacon by Orville Ward Owen (1894), though its determination not just to promote the National Poet to courtier status but to credit Shakespeare (or at least ‘Shakespeare’) with the phantasmal undercover weepie about Mary he obviously should have written might have provided admirable material. More regrettable is the non-appearance of a particularly telling Romantic variant on The Recess, the anonymous novelette published in 1820 as

Rose Douglas, or, The Court of Elizabeth, An Interesting Historical Tale, Detailing the Life and Singular Adventures of Rose Douglas, the lovely daughter of Mary Queen of Scots: Her Interview with Queen Elizabeth, and residence at Court; the singular events which introduce her to the notice of the Earl of Essex; their attachment and private union; the rage of Elizabeth on discovering their marriage; the Treatment of the lovely Rose; the Death of the Earl, and Sufferings of the ill-fated Countess.

The lovely Rose is the one surviving twin secretly born to Mary during her secret marriage to the Duke of Norfolk, and proves to be the unrecognised cause of the Essex Rebellion, provoked when Elizabeth, discovering the secrets of the enviably beautiful Rose’s parentage and of her clandestine marriage to the Earl on the same black day, endeavours to pressure her favourite into renouncing his bride. All this, once we have swallowed Sophia Lee, is predictable enough (though conflating Mary’s execution with the fortunes of Essex is an original touch: the Queen of Scots is still alive well into her daughter’s story, a last interview on the eve of her execution sending Rose into premature labour). What is much less so is the novel’s ending, the one major twist undivulged on the title-page. Rose survives the stillbirth of Essex’s child and the execution of Essex himself, remaining at Court to attend Elizabeth’s own deathbed, to which the Queen is brought by remorse over the deaths of Essex and Mary (deaths which Elizabeth – tenderly passing Rose some cherished relics of her mother – insists she never really intended). After this the ill-fated Countess, shockingly, outlives her sufferings, and is happily remarried to one Sir Everard, with whom she settles down into contented domestic obscurity. (She thereby betrays a sudden and unexpected resemblance to the bashful Rose Brad-wardine of Scott’s Waverley, who the hero Edward ultimately marries in place of the seductive Jacobite zealot Flora Maclvor.) Escaping from the Gothic inheritances of her blood lineage and her literary pedigree alike, this particular daughter of Scots Mary manages to grow up into a mere English Rose after all. For some 19th-century readers, despite all Lewis’s examples to the contrary, a fascination with the dead mother was something to be grown out of.

As this example also suggests, many of the most widely circulated stories about Mary are equally stories about Elizabeth, the complementary vices and virtues of the rival queens supplying much of their ideological point: perhaps the most frequently recycled cliché in popular novels and plays about the Queen of Scots is the fictitious confrontation scene in which Elizabeth declares that she is the greater Queen and Mary retorts that she is the greater Woman. It may seem perverse to criticise a book about Mary Queen of Scots for not being about the Virgin Queen as well, but Lewis sometimes gives the impression that when it came to thinking about femininity, history and British national identity between the 17th and 19th centuries, arguing about the authenticity of the ‘casket letters’, shedding tears over pictures of Fotheringay and making pilgrimages to Loch Leven were the only games in town. Her discussion of The Island Queens, for example, nowhere acknowledges that Banks’s play about Elizabeth and Mary was a follow-up to his triumphantly successful costume drama, The Unhappy Favourite, in which Elizabeth – hopelessly in love with Essex, whom the machinations of jealous courtiers oblige her to execute – is the desiring tragic heroine of sensibility. Subsequent texts in which Elizabeth agonises over a favourite’s death-warrant are just as numerous as those in which it is her amorous double Mary who must fall a sacrifice to stern Duty: indeed, as The Recess and Rose Douglas demonstrate, the two categories overlap. The arguments about Gloriana and whether she should be seen as a patriotic bluestocking, the adored inspiration for a generation of gallant sea-dogs or a frigidly manipulative dominatrix raged just as virulently as the arguments about Mary and whether she was a saint or a slut, and they provide an important context for the material Lewis does describe.

Most frustrating is the omission from Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation of most of the 20th century. Lewis cuts straight from Charlotte Yonge to a quick epilogue called ‘Post-Modern Mary’, which barely has time to do more than mention Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor (1996), Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped off (1992) and Princess Diana, who died just in time to point Lewis’s moral and adorn her tale: ‘Again the best-loved queen, like perhaps the most lovable mother, turns out to be the one most lost, not only among too many images of her but also to herself, albeit in a way that makes her the least resistible of mirrors to almost everybody else.’ This is a great pity, not only because it denies us the pleasure of finding out what Lewis would have to say about Jean Plaidy or Rosalind Marshall or Vanessa Redgrave (hopelessly pitted against Glenda Jackson in the dreary 1971 film Mary Queen of Scots), but because it means she doesn’t have to explore the 20th-century American perspective from which she makes her confident declarations about the internally-riven fictiveness of British national identity. Her introduction, it’s true, is aptly framed by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comments on seeing paintings of Mary during a visit to Abbotsford, and takes no trouble to conceal its own status as a comparable work of American tourism: ‘to this day no one can venture into England without stumbling across some monument to Mary’s memory,’ Lewis observes – a remark which might surprise hundreds of Belgian lorry-drivers. But since her account of the memory of Holyrood skips the era of Hollywood, Lewis never has to analyse America’s ambivalent fascination with its own ancien régime (of which her book is itself a symptom, if not a displacement) anything like as rigorously as she exposes Britain’s troubled investment in its Anglo-Scottish past. This can make her book seem smug: because the history she describes doesn’t have any acknowledged implications for herself, she sometimes gives the impression that the conflicts of allegiance she writes about were solely matters of psychological style, without having urgent material consequences. In the end this chronicle of Britain’s imperfectly imagined Marys seems as determined to escape from the constraining tangibility of Old World history as the abstractions pursued by the Declaration of Independence. Lewis’s meditations conclude by finding in the enigma of the Queen of Scots a Romantically trans-historical experience of the sublimely ungraspable, ‘a finally immaterial – even anti-material – despair’:

Failure to recover the mirror of the lost mother becomes in itself her meaning, the sign of her presence in – and even as – us. Once this seems true, history can only shed its mask as an epic tale of consolidation and attainment. It drops its veil of knowability as well, to reveal the ravishing phantom of an unassuageable grief.

Or, to put it less rhapsodically, history is only what you Britons can remember, and a delusively consoling screen-memory at that. Perhaps the text most germane to Lewis’s unwritten 20th-century section would be Sellar and Yeatman’s prophetically Post-Modern 1066 and All That (1930), which, similarly committed to the view that history is what you can remember, cheerfully garbles most of Lewis’s favourite tropes into a single paragraph:

A great nuisance in [Elizabeth’s] reign was the memorable Scottish queen, known as Mary Queen of Hearts on account of the large number of husbands which she obtained, e.g. Cardinal Ritzio, Boswell and the King of France: most of these she easily blew up at Holywood ... As Mary had already been Queen of France and Queen of Scotland many people thought that it would be unfair if she was not made Queen of England as well ... Elizabeth, however, learning that in addition to all this Mary was good-looking and could play on the virginals, recognized that Mary was too romantic not to be executed, and accordingly had that done.

Too romantic not to be executed, Lewis’s Mary finally turns out to be too Romantic for her story to belong solely to the Scots, or the English, or the British, and she becomes instead the common property of any affluent neurotic undergoing a doomed therapeutic quest for the Lost Mother.