As Elizabeth I enters old age with no acknowledged successor, “Bess of Hardwick”, the dowager Countess of Shrewsbury, angles to get her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart in line as the best candidate. Arbella (or Arabella, as there are various spellings of her name) is daughter of Beth’s daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, the younger brother of Lord Darnley (husband of Mary, Queen of Scots). The ancestry is tricky to follow, but Arbella has royal blood through her father, which makes Arbella great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, former queen of Scotland and brother to Henry VIII. Arbella’s cousin James (son of Mary, Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley) has a hereditarily stronger claim to be Elizabeth I’s successor, but unlike Arbella, James is technically disqualified as he is foreign born. Worried by political opponents inside the English court and concerned about foreign plots and threats outside, Bess keeps her independent granddaughter a virtual prisoner, closeted from the outside world and maintained to someday be a pawn in the international royal marriage market. Bess’ “jewel” is groomed for greatness and possibly, one day a throne, but like a valuable race horse, Arbella’s life is a limited one. Unfortunately little changes when Arbella goes to court upon the ascendancy of her cousin James. Her cousin distrusts her, keeps her under constant supervision, and Arbella’s dreams of a free life away from scrutiny and constraint remains firmly outside her grasp until she meets a younger man, Will Seymour, who provides her with an opportunity to rebel and escape from her gilded prison.
Arbella as a character felt flat here. Perhaps this was an impression more from the narrator in the Audible edition (her voice was rather monotone and detached) but the other character, the poetess Amy Lanyer, had a better narrator but also felt rather shallow. We are supposed to experience the lack of joy, the societal constraints, and strife that both women endured. Instead, it feels like two women telling their sad life stories in a way that resembled sleepwalking. You feel empathy for these women who have suffered through little fault of their own, but their stories aren’t quite compelling because they act more numb and removed from the drama rather than resilient and proactive. Arbella’s romance with Will Seymour seems far more of a way to rebel and escape the constraints first her grandmother and later her cousin the queen place on her. Rather than a woman in love, Arbella seems like an opportunist, grabbing at a straw to finally win her freedom. Ms. Fremantle’s previous book “Sisters of Treason” (see below for the link to my review) was superb. “The Queen’s Gambit” was also engaging. Arbella Stuart is not a frequent character in historical fiction, and perhaps it is because much of her story isn’t well known. But there was a big something missing in this version, and I think a more intriguing version is yet to come.
Amazon link is here.