Friday, 7 August 2015

Book Review: The Galliard by Margaret Irwin
After past week’s short literary excursion to Tōkyō and the island of Hokkaidō in the north of Japan with Haruki Murakami as a guide, I return to Europe and move a little closer to the Arctic Circle again because until the end of the month this still is My Reading Summer of Northern White Nights. For today’s review I picked a historical novel, a classic one that is principally set in Scotland of the 1560s and includes a few scenes on the Orkney and Shetland Isles. Be assured right away that this time the protagonists don’t chase after mysterious sheep although they pass quite some time on horseback in the countryside. Much rather The Galliard by Margaret Irwin is a love story revolving around Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her relationship to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, that ended in marriage, but sealed the unhappy fates of both.

Margaret Emma Faith Irwin was born in London, England, U.K., in March 1889, but after the premature death of both her parents she grew up in Bristol where her uncle was a master at Clifton High School. She studied English in Oxford and made her literary debut in 1913 writing short stories for different periodicals. In 1924 she brought out her first book, a ghost story titled Still She Wished For Company, which was followed by the fantasy novel These Mortals (1925) and the satire Knock Four Times (1927). Only later the author turned to historical fiction which made her famous eventually. Her first publication in this genre was the prize-winning novel None So Pretty in 1930. Among her most important and still widely read works count Royal Flush (1932), The Proud Servant (1934), The Stranger Prince (1937), The Bride (1939), The Galliard (1941; originally published as The Gay Galliard), the Good Queen Elizabeth Trilogy consisting of Young Bess (1944), Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953), and her last book, the noted biography of Sir Walter Raleigh titled That Great Lucifer (1960). Margaret Irwin died in Durham, England, U.K., in December 1967.

Among Scots James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, is generally known as The Galliard because he has proved himself a gay rascal in war and in love. He is only in his mid-twenties, and yet he already holds the highest office in Scotland, when Queen Regent Mary of Guise dies in 1560. The queen herself, Mary Stewart, has been living in French exile ever since she was six years old and got married to the French boy king François II some months earlier. When Bothwell meets her for the first time in Paris, she is seventeen and a half and still too child-like to appeal to him as a man. The little Queen, however, feels increasingly attracted to Bothwell and seeks his company although she isn’t fully aware of her (forbidden) feelings for him until his departure for Scotland. Mary is detained in France because her sickly husband has fallen seriously ill and eventually dies. Only in August 1561 she can leave France and seize the reins of the throne of her dangerously divided country. Alas, she is too inexperienced in politics and soon finds herself involved in the ceaseless wrestling for power between Protestants and Catholics as well as subject to intrigues at royal court hatched against her by her older (illegitimate) step-brother James and his followers who are secretly supported by her enemy Queen Elizabeth I. During the following six years Bothwell repeatedly proves his unconditional loyalty to Queen Mary not just because family honour and political ambition demand it, but also because upon her return to Scotland he has fallen in love with the by then fully-grown young woman. Even when she marries her English cousin Lord Darnley in 1565, he stays by Mary Stewart’s side advising, supporting and rescuing her from danger on several occasions, while their mutual love is doomed to boil beneath the surface until…

There are many fictionalised biographies of Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, but The Galliard takes a different approach than most focusing on her third and last husband, the Earl of Bothwell, and his point of view. As for the faithfulness of the love story told in the novel, I’m not well enough acquainted with English and Scottish history to judge it. Even acknowledging that the author has often been praised for the historical accuracy of her stories, many years have passed since the book first appeared in 1941 and historians may have discovered new sources that give a different picture of the events and the relationship. In any case, the historical novel clearly shows the political and religious trenches that divided sixteenth-century Europe and Scotland in particular. Considering that royal courts have always been a favourite playground of schemers aspiring to power, young and inexperienced Mary Stuart may never have stood a real chance to firmly establish her reign. Thanks to her narrative skill Margaret Irwin managed to show the difficulties and struggles that the young queen had to face in her country without losing from sight her personal fate and that of her lover. Moreover the novel is written in a clear and vivid language that makes it a pleasure to read.

It is true that I’m not really a huge fan of historical novels, but I liked The Galliard by Margaret Irwin very much because it evokes the atmosphere of the covered period to a degree that I seldom found in other works of the genre. Probably, the author’s expertise and habit of doing thorough research shines through the lines although this one isn’t even considered to be her best work (which is the Good Queen Elizabeth Trilogy). It is good to see that many of Margaret Irwin's books are still in print although she as a person seems to be quite forgotten. Biographical data are scarce and sometimes inconsistent as for instance regarding the year of her death. However, I hope that my review and my recommendation will inspire new readers to plunge into this novel and its time.

* * * * *
This review is another contribution to Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!

To know more about this challenge and my reviews for it »»» please read my sign-up post.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.