One of the interesting things about the Royal Diaries series is that they’re doing a really difficult task—taking small parts of (mostly) very famous stories, and adapting them for a young audience, but deleting all the sex-and-death that tends to populate adult fiction. They’re more daily life and growing up (and therefore more relatable for a young audience) and less violent killing and adultery.
Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country, France, 1553, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.
This is an interesting one because Mary Queen of Scots story is generally immensely overshadowed by her far more famous cousin, Elizabeth I of England. But this is the prelude to a story that’s really fascinating in its own way (after all, Mary was eventually imprisoned for eighteen years and then executed by Elizabeth, after a fun-filled life that included being the Queen of France and then a marriage to a noble that ended in his murder and a major explosion at their house! Whew) and features all kinds of famous names that usually pop up in much more lascivious books: Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, Nostradamus! Geez.
Mary in this book is twelve, a long way from smothering her future husband, and has been at the French court since she was five, being groomed to marry Francis, the dauphin. She spends her days with her ladies-in-waiting, the “four Marys,” and Francis, being tutored and learning to dance and hunt and generally behave like French royalty. But the court is a particularly dangerous place with Catherine de Medici at its helm, since she’s suspicious of everyone and fills the court with slimy Italians who may or may not be poisoners. Her real problem is that the king, while married to Catherine, is really in love with Diane de Poitiers, and everyone knows it. Mary and the other children love Diane, much to Catherine’s dismay, which sets up a whole bunch of strife right off the bat.
Mary misses her mother very much, and at Christmas she resolves to think better of others (like Catherine, for example), and then immediately gets mad at her for treating the Scottish servants badly. Mary is beginning to run her own household within the court, and they squabble quite a bit since as Mary puts it, there isn’t enough room for two queens in France, let alone in one castle. But Catherine is still in charge, and she packs them up to visit Nostradamus, the astrologer, in Paris.
Nostradamus tells Catherine that he perceives blood in Mary’s future (I just have to say: not a great prediction, Nostradamus. When you’re predicting the future of a girl who will be the queen of France and has a claim at the English throne and all kinds of people who want her dead, predicting “blood” is not a stretch. Try harder), but Mary decides she needs to hear more. So she trades places with her serving maid and goes to see him in the dead of night. Nostradamus again doesn’t outdo himself by saying that her life will be “a tumult.” I would expect better from an astrologer, to be quite honest.
Like the English court, the French court proceeds around to different castles, and after the Louvre in Paris (embarrassing fact: I did not know it was a former castle until reading this book, and I am 27 years old. Perhaps my French history is a bit lacking) they head to Chambord for hunting and hawking. Unfortunately, Catherine also insists that they learn ballet, which Mary thinks is the most monstrous waste of time ever invented. Mary’s uncles are there as well, and they want to hurry along the marriage, since they’re afraid Francis will die before they actually manage to get married, as he is a bit of a sickly weenie. At a ball held at Chambord, Mary and her maids experiment with ceruse, which was actually made of white lead, and Mary suffers a horrible allergic reaction that swells up her entire face. See, makeup will kill you.
But that’s neither here nor there, and in the middle of February they head to Chenonceau, Diane de Poitier’s palace, for ice skating and other assorted winter fun. But while skating, one of Mary’s maids, Mary Beaton, falls under the ice going to rescue Mary’s puppy, and nearly dies of hypothermia. She lives, but her scrape with death makes Mary (the queen) think more about how she wants to treat people—and goes back and forth again between treating Catherine nicely and loathing her.
Mary goes to Meudon with Diane, and on the way she learns about how awful Catherine’s childhood was—orphaned as a child, raised without family, without anyone to call a real friend. At Meudon, Mary has to put all that behind her and focus on her own royal duties and the birth of her newest cousin before going to meet the rest of the court at Fontainebleau.
There the court employs a new musician, Signore Marcellini (he is, as you will not be surprised to learn, Italian), and Mary takes up her music studies again along with the four Marys. She reflects on how much she really does like Francis, but she loves him like a brother—she is secretly attracted to one of her Scottish guards. For a second I thought this novel might take a turn for the salacious, but it’s a YA novel, so it won’t. At least, not in that way. As the girls take music lessons over the summer, Mary Fleming gradually grows quieter and quieter and more withdrawn until at Midsummer, Mary (the queen) discovers that Marcellini has been trying to molest Mary Fleming for months—totally by accident, when he leaps out of the bushes mistaking one of the other Marys for Mary Fleming. Mary Fleming confesses everything—that he has been trying to grope her and kiss her, and she even bit him once without deterring him. Mary-the-queen vows to catch him and take revenge—“I realized that this was perhaps not simply five young maids all named Mary, but in a sense this was my first council of war…I could not be impulsive.” Nice.
They plan a small ball, and a way to entrap Marcellini, but it fails. Mary becomes more concerned, though, when she begins to notice papers and things on her desk slightly rearranged, and starts to worry that someone is spying on her. Mary Beaton comes up with the strategy of putting a hair through the latch so if it breaks, she will know it (and I’m just going to pause to note that this is a strategy also employed in Elizabeth I, so I don’t know if it was a common 16th-century tactic, or just coincidence)—and the next day, the hair is broken! So Mary consults with Nostradamus to come up with a powder that will be invisible on paper, but stain the hands of whoever is touching them.
For days they wait, and when the hair is broken they know to be on the lookout. But it isn’t until three days after that at a ball that they discover the perpetrator—when their white gowns are stained with purple dye after dancing with Marcellini! Mary Fleming reappears with her dress torn and stained with purple, and purple stained across her face and her neck, while Marcellini slinks off to see Catherine. Mary storms off, presents Marcellini’s dye-stained glove to Catherine, and then stomps off while Catherine “blanched and then sank to the floor.”
Marcellini is sent away, Catherine suffers a miscarriage, and Mary’s guardian immediately asks why she didn’t come to him when she knew Mary Fleming was being harassed. When the king arrives a few days later, he is angry with Catherine and deeply concerned about Mary Fleming, and releases all of them to Meudon to visit Mary’s grandmother and family there. Off they go, enjoying the last of their summer, and they return to the court when the king and Catherine make their royal progress through France. The king and Diane are greeted with cheers, but the people are more ambivalent about Catherine, mainly because even they know that she kind of sucks.
Mary’s grandmother suffers a stroke and she returns to Meudon to be with her. She recovers somewhat in time to be present at Mary’s First Communion, when Mary prays that she will become more open and loving towards Catherine. She wrestles with herself and finally asks Catheirne to stand beside her, as her future mother-in-law, and reflects that in doing so she is ready not only to make communion but to rule—“for in this end of selfishness was my true beginning as a sovereign.”
Rating: B-. Hmm. This is a hard one. It’s an interesting book, and I can honestly say I knew very little about Mary Queen of Scots beforehand (and still know very little now), so in that sense it’s a nice opening. This one, more so than most of the other Royal Diaries, is very intensely religious, and Mary’s personal belief plays a big role in the story. Notably, it also features a story of intrigue and deception at court directly, while most of the other RD books are observers on this phenomenon, or it takes place totally offscreen or not at all. So those two components are pretty interesting all by themselves! Unfortunately, Mary as a character comes across as a bit stiff and unyielding, and while this may or may not be an accurate historical representation, it makes for a character who’s difficult to relate to and makes Mary seem older than her years and less engaging than she could. There’s also vanishingly few amusing bits, which makes it seem a longer slog than it should for a fairly short book! So all things combined, I dithered between the B- and C+ rating, ultimately settling on the higher one recognizing a well-written book with some really lovely turns of phrase, and some interesting plot lines you don’t see all that much!