We may all know the fate of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-days queen, but I, for one, knew nothing about her younger sisters, Katherine and Mary. Despite de Lisle's title, none of the three "would be queen" of her own accord. Their claims were promoted by others because their mother, Frances, was the only surviving child of Mary Tudor's second marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. That made Frances, as Henry VIII's niece, a viable heir to the throne, since Henry had specifically excluded the heirs of his elder sister Margaret. When Edward VI died, many still considered his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be bastards. Frances gave up her place in line in favor of her daughter Jane (most likely as part of the deal to marry her into the prominent and ambitious Dudley family). And so began the fate of "the sisters who would be queen." Katherine Grey, a court beauty, was denied Queen Elizabeth's permission to marry the man she loved. They married in secret but were discovered when Katherine's first pregnancy began to show. She spent the rest of her life in the Tower--where her two sons were born. Mary Grey, the youngest sister, a tiny, unattractive, and possibly hunchbacked woman, suffered a similar fate by falling in love with and secretly marrying a man of inferior status.
De Lisle provides fascinating insights into power, intrigue, jealousy, and the conflicts between public and private lives in the Tudor era. What I appreciated most about the book was the way that it brought together many pieces of Tudor history that had been floating in my brain, fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. I hadn't realized, for instance, that the Grey family were descended from the first marriage of Elizabeth Wodeville, wife of Edward IV. And somehow it had escaped me that Guildford Dudley was the brother of Elizabeth's favorite, Lord Robert Dudley--strange indeed that she developed such an affection for one whose father and brother were executed for trying to shift the throne away from her sister Mary and herself.
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen is a must-read for any afficiando of Tudor England. It's filled with facts, but De Lisle's expert hand makes it an entertaining story as well.
Julia Fox came up with a fascinating idea in writing a dual biography of the most renowned of Ferdinand and Isabella???s daughters: Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII???s beleaguered queen, and Juana of Castile. The last work of non-fiction that I read (Alison Weir???s bio of Mary Boleyn) was tediously repetitious and digressive, a problem I???ve found with many historical biographies. Fox, however, has avoided that pitfall, creating an engaging and highly readable narrative.
Katherine and Juana have been reduced over time almost to caricatures, Katherine as the stubbornly Catholic wife who refused to let Henry go, and Juana as a wife so obsessed with her husband that his affairs and early death drove her to madness. But Fox shows that there was much more to each woman, and that, to a great extent, the restrictions of gender and the machinations of the men around them caused their downfalls. She details Katherine???s role as an ambassador concerned with the interests of both Spain and England, as well as her diplomacy and finesse in dealing with Henry. Fox does an admirable job of presenting fairly the events with which most readers will be familiar: her penurious widowhood following the death of Prince Arthur; the dispensation to marry Henry; the many miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths; her displacement by Anne Boleyn. In the case of Juana, Fox???s research demonstrates that existing letters and reports from those permitted to see her following her confinement for madness demonstrate that she behaved sanely and graciously. Fox contends that her husband and father schemed to keep her from exercising sovereignty over Castile, Ferdinand in particular unwilling to give up what he had jointly ruled with Isabella after she died and left the crown to Juana, her eldest daughter.
Through no fault of the author???s, the space devoted to the sisters is not balanced 50/50, simply because there is less documentation of Juana???s life. Near the end, Fox poses a fascinating question: What would have happened if the sisters??? roles had been reversed???if Katherine, so good at diplomacy, had been Queen of Castile, and if Juana, who produced six children (two emperors and four queens) had been Henry???s wife?
Effie Gray was only twelve when she met the celebrated young art critic John Ruskin in 1841. A friendship developed, and within a few years, he proposed; the two married when Effie was nineteen, Ruskin 29. Effie imagined the two of them as the perfect couple, her social charm as asset to his brilliance. But on their wedding night, something went terribly wrong. Despite her innocence, Effie knew that there had to be more to marriage than taking walks along the riverbank: Ruskin either would not or could not consummate their union. In a letter to her parents, she wrote:
"He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April 1848."
Ashamed, Effie remained in the marriage for six years before formally filing for an annulment. She was subjected to a physical examination to verify her chastity and humiliated by Ruskin's testimony that "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." The doctor who examined her declared that she was normal in every way; it has been speculated that Ruskin might have been repelled by his wife's pubic hair, or that she was menstruating. As one would expect, the case created a scandal in Victorian England.
Fortunately, a happier future was in store. Effie had posed for Ruskin's friend, the artist John Everett Millais, who accompanied the couple on a trip to Scotland. The two fell in love and were married a year after the annulment was granted. Fagence devotes the first half of her biography to the scandal, but the second details Effie's 42-year marriage, which, despite some losses and difficulties, was a happy one. Effie continued to model for Millais (as did her siblings, her eight children, and later their grandchildren), and "Everett," as she called him, eventually earned great success as a painter, as well as a baronetcy. But her one disappointment was that the queen would not receive "a divorced person" at court. It seemed she would never quite shake the scandal of NOT being a wife to Ruskin. And Ruskin, who apparently never learned when not to speak, publicly blamed Effie for 'ruining' Millais's potential as an artist, the necessity of feeding a family turning him to a more lucrative style.
Cooper does an admirable job of presenting this slice of Victorian scandal and a peek into the world of art. We learn not only about the three persons mentioned in her lengthy title, but also about her travels in Italy, the elder Ruskins, Effie's family in Scotland, the Millais children, and the friends who stood by her. I did find the second half a bit confusing at times, partly because of the profusion of Johns, Georges, Sophias and Effies, but also because of the author's tendency to jump back and forth through time.
When I bought this title, I was thinking, "This will be good for me to learn; it might even be interesting at times." I was surprised to find the book never had any dull spots. I did learn so many interesting things that helped set a great backdrop for the roots of France and Germany, feudalism, the history of education, the Vikings, the Ottoman Empire's rise, and even the Norman invasion of England in subsequent centuries. That I was able to become so much more knowledgable about a time and person we only hear little about while enjoying a biography that was so readable was wonderful!