Book Group: Ian Irvine reviews 'My Heart Is My Own'

A life, and death, of melodrama
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The Independent Culture

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born twice: first in 1542, as the daughter of James V and Mary of Guise, and second in a play by Schiller in 1800 at the height of the Romantic Movement. The historical Mary became Queen of Scots six days after her birth, instantly the focus of international, religious, political and family intrigues, and remained a figure of enormous importance in European politics until her execution 44 years later.

But the Romantic Mary is still with us today - through plays, novels, operas, poems, popular biographies and films (a Jimmy McGovern screenplay is in production right now) - and in many guises: manipulated and manipulative, tragic heroine and abused wife, scheming adultress and murderess, political naive, Catholic martyr, self-indulgent seductress. Her life was melodramatic enough, but that hasn't prevented writers from egging it up. There's a lot of myth-making to demolish before we can get a clear view.

In his own popular biography, John Guy pays Mary the compliment of examining the original sources, and turns up a few that had been ignored or lost for some time. He opens with a bravura description of her execution at Fotheringay Castle, an occasion intended to consolidate Protestant triumph over Catholic perfidy, but that Mary, by force of will, used to present herself as a faithful daughter of the church and martyr. He then fashions a fluent narrative of those events that led to the axe.

As elegantly as Garrett Mattingly in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, he places our national history in the context of a much larger picture. Of the two great crimes laid at her door - the murder of her husband Lord Darnley and the conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth I - Guy examines the evidence and convincingly acquits her. As the book progresses, William Cecil, zealous Protestant and Elizabeth's most trusted adviser, emerges as Mary's implacable nemesis, always ready to damage her in any way he could. Of course, Elizabeth died childless and was succeeded by Mary's son, James. Mary's descendants have sat on the throne of the United Kingdom ever since.

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