Review: 'Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth' by Mary S.Lovell

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The key to a good biography is that it picks you up and drops you right in the middle of the protagonist's life and allows you to see the world with new eyes.

 In nothing is this more important than in historical biographies, where you're given the protagonist as a unique focus to anchor you as you look around the period of history that they grew in.

The Tudor period is arguably the most famous in all of Britain's history: it held the devastation of the reformation, it encompassed the rise of the printing press, the discovery of 'new worlds', and the flourishing of great art and the rise of charismatic personalities that were rapidly brought to test by some of the most turbulent and back-stabbing political changes that the country had experienced. It was also, fundamentally, a watershed period for the rise of female agency and rule in areas that had previously been barred to them. With such a rich and well known period of history to navigate - with lists of influential names and machinations to remember - having an anchor to hold on to is what prevents everything from becoming all too academic and alien. Mary Lovell presents Bess of Hardwick as that anchor in her biography, and the great lady proves to be a fantastic guide.

Bess of Hardwick was the first lady of Chatsworth house and rose to become the second richest and most powerful woman in the country, under Queen Elizabeth herself. She was born into genteel family that was far from wealthy by noblity's standards. She was first widowed at sixteen, going on to survive three more husbands. Her fourth marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury was beset by problems as the couple struggled to keep together under their duty of the gaurdianship (and imprisonment) of Mary Queen of Scots for fifteen years, and the marriage eventually broke apart under her husband's declining mental health.

Mary Queen of Scots: Bess' friend and enemy
Despite these challenges, Bess worked hard to secure the future of her children and to secure and grow her fortune, becoming a self taught enthusiastic businesswoman in what was very much a man's world. Forging her independence and relying on her own natural charisma and intelligence, she made sure that she was a valuable asset to the court and managed to weather through the reigns of four famous monarchs while many of her friends fell foul of their tempers. In this, despite her modest beginnings, Bess had fantastic success. She was a close personal friend of Elizabeth Ist (although even she was not immune to the effects of the virgin queen's moods) and her own granddaughter Arbella, through Bess' machinations, came tantalisingly close to taking the English throne.

This is the wonderfully written history of the domestic, dynastic and political occupations of an 'ordinary' woman, and offers a unique and very accessible historical perspective. While this is doubtless a feminist history of a remarkable woman, Lovell manages to focus on the day to day realities of this woman's life: while Lovell is impressed and clearly affectionate about her subject, Bess is never coloured as either a martyr or a saint. What the book offers is a rarely glimpses level of detail and reality about what it meant to be a Tudor woman.

Bess herself in the 1550s
Lovell's research is commendable: she has scanned through hundreds and hundreds of letters, household accounts and more to back up her biography with primary research. This gives her the authority to challenge many previous biographies and historical theories about Bess, and she does so with a sense of humble confidence. As with any good historical biography, pages of notes are provided so that, if you wish, you can check her references and do some research of your own.

While this is - I believe - a 'proper' historical work, the narrative style is chronological and detailed while still keeping the emotional flourishes and conjecture that make for a very engaging read. It's impossible to close the final pages of this book without feeling a sense of companionship and admiration for Bess herself. As Alexander Waugh [The Independent on Sunday] commented about the book, it is 'one of those biographies in which the reader really doesn't want the subject to die'.

I thoroughly recommend a read.

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