Saturday 27 August 2011
Mary and Elizabeth by Emily Purdy
This book was an impulse buy. I was in the supermarket and there was a 2 for £7 offer going on. As I am a fan of historical fiction, I got it. From the cover and the synopsis on the back cover it promised to be about the sisterly relationship between Mary and Elizabeth Tudor as they grow up and England changes. I hadn't heard of the author and had read none of her work before.
I saved this book for the plane ride on the way home, thinking it would be a nice light read to pass the time. And it was, but it was also a lesson against impulse purchases. Starting with the death of Henry VIII, it follows Mary and Elizabeth through the reign of their brother Edward, through Mary's reign and ends as Elizabeth becomes Queen. Written in the first person, each chapter tells the point of view of an alternate sister, meaning that we get to read both sides of the story.
This novel was not for me. I like my historical fiction to stay relatively close to fact, although I can understand a little artistic license. But this book was the most sensational piece of historical fiction I have ever read. Every rumour about the Tudor period was treated as fact and the pages were filled with scandal after scandal. And because of this, I really didn't like the way Purdy wrote the two central characters. Elizabeth was man-hungry and slept with practically everyone; Mary was a silly immature girl who was happy to betray her country in order to sleep with her new husband. Now, I'm no prude and I know history only tells us the boring bits, but Purdy took it way too far.
The only good thing I could get out of all of the sensationalism was by telling myself that maybe Purdy was making a point about the power play between men and women and how women had to resort to their sexuality to gain power. And how men held all the power in intimate relationships as well as in society.
I didn't think the writing was bad, and I liked how we got to see the viewpoints of both the women, I just think this book could have been a lot more than it was. Plenty of interesting topics were just glossed over - their differences in religion, Mary's experiences growing up cut out of the succession and forced to be Elizabeth's maid, Elizabeth's role in the plots against Mary, Mary's treatment of Protestants during her reign. I would have liked to read more about these, and about the relationship between the two sisters, and less about sex and scandal.
Verdict: A sensational story that strays too far from fact.
Score: 2 out of 5