Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review: The Lost Tudor Princess

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir
Ballantine Books, 2016
576 p.

First of all: I really, really enjoyed learning more about Lady Margaret Douglas. Henry VIII's wives and daughters get lots of attention, as does Mary, Queen of Scots, but other women of the Tudor period tend to get short shrift, even though many of them paid large roles in the political and dynastic maneuverings of the time. Margaret Douglas was Henry VIII's niece and Mary, Queen of Scots's mother-in-law; what I hadn't really realized before reading this book was that she was long seen by various factions as a potential heir to the throne. And, of course, she's the one whose descendents have sat on the throne ever since, not Henry VIII's. The book provided an interesting look at the political situation in Scotland, England, and to some extent Europe from a different angle than the usual focus on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

And Margaret herself was fascinating - politically ambitious, endlessly plotting, never quite able to overcome her tendency to act impetuously rather than think about the likely ramifications from her more powerful relatives. (She wound up in the Tower a lot.) She was the dominant partner in her marriage at a time when women weren't supposed to do that, and her devotion to her husband and children - and the way they became the focus of her ambitions - provides an interesting contrast with the Virgin Queen.

Unfortunately, the book had a few big flaws that make me hesitate to fully recommend it. One of the issues I had with this book is one I've had with several of Weir's biographies of figures about whom there is less in the historical record: The narrative frequently got bogged down by shopping lists or lists of clothing or fabrics or other historical goods. I understand that in some cases these records are all we have to reveal what was going on at a specific point in someone's life; these lists are interesting from a historical perspective, of course, and I'd be all for them being included in notes or an appendix. But rather than synthesizing the useful conclusions - that a list of extravagant Christmas gifts, say, suggested that Margaret was currently in Henry VIII's favor - Weir lists out all the details, which slows down the reader and suggests Weir's just trying to pad out the length.

My main problem with the book, though, revolved around how Weir presented her sources and the information they gave. Again, especially for female historical figures, real information is sometimes scarce and sources must be considered that are not airtight - and certainly virtually no sources are unbiased. But there's a way to write a biography using these questionable sources in a responsible way, and Weir doesn't quite do it here. There's a lot of information from writings by Margaret's enemies, and Weir's pretty good at pointing out that the people writing these things had an agenda. But Weir also uses poems about and attributed to her subject to make factual statements about Margaret's actions and beliefs and feelings, and she never really examines the way poetry is really never meant to be taken as documentary evidence - or even the more interesting question of why Margaret and her allies would want her to be portrayed in certain ways at certain times. Weir also sometimes falls into the trap of asserting how people "must have felt" without providing support - a pet peeve of mine in history writing - and I have trouble taking seriously a book that casually asserts that a baby must have been born on a certain date because he "couldn't have" been conceived before his parents' wedding.

Lady Margaret Douglas, like so many often overlooked women in history, deserves a thoughtful, scholarly biography - but this wasn't quite it.

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