Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Rizzio (The Book)

A long time ago, way back when I was in my teens, I became fascinated with the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), a highly romantic and romanticized historical figure and Reformation-era Catholic heroine, whose story resonated with a deepening fascination for history and religion and the intersection of the two. At the time, I read biographies and even historical novels about her. 

That was, as I said, a long time ago, but I have never completely lost interest in Mary's enigmatic life and reign and the political and religious conflicts that consumed her. So when I recently read a review of Rizzio, a new novel by Denise Mina, I immediately went and read the book. It subject is David Rizzio, Mary's Italian secretary, whose murder - by a cabal of Protestant Scottish Lords led by Mary's Catholic second husband, Henry Lord Darnley, during Mary's pregnancy with the future King James VI and I - proved to be a pivotal point in Mary's increasing alienation from Darnley and one more calamity that contributed to Catholic Mary's reign's careening out of control in increasingly Calvinistic Scotland.

The historical background is the tragic events of March 9, 1566, when the 6-months pregnant queen was peacefully enjoying supper in Edinburgh's Holyrood Palace with some of her ladies-in-waiting, together with her secretary and confidant David Rizzio. Her troublesome husband Darnley (whom she had unwisely married to bolster her claim to the English Crown, but who had quite quickly shown himself unworthy) stormed into the room and, while Mary was held captive at sword point, Darnley and his accomplices murdered Rizzio stabbing him 56 times. Mary eventually lured her weak treacherous husband back and, with his assistance, escaped. Meanwhile, however, the distraught Queen supposedly commanded that his bloodstains not be washed off the floor. To this day, a marker identifies the spot to tourists, of whom I was one in 2005.

It is, of course, a problem inherent in historical fiction that we already know what happened. So there is no suspense or surprise. We know who committed the murder and why. If this were an entirely fictional account, then what might make for suspense would be the very dangerous situation - for both her and her unborn heir - that Darnley has put Mary in, and how her resourcefulness will turn her husband briefly back into an ally in order for her to escape that danger. We know that she is going to be the winner here - just as we know the long-term doom that lie ahead for her rule and eventually her life. The artistic challenge for the novelist here is to bring this old story to life in a way which makes the characters and their internal and external dilemmas immediate to us, for which secondary fictional or composite characters can be successfully employed. History has already taught us what the participants did and said. The novelist's task is to help us imagine how they may have felt. And that Mina manages to accomplish quite convincingly.

If only Mary had managed her sojourn on the Scottish throne better, if only she had been a bit more like her more successful cousin, Elizabeth of England, how different history might have turned out! What would have been the political - and religious - history of Britain and the English-speaking world, had it been Catholic Mary, rather than her Protestant son, who had inherited the English crown in 1603? It is the allure of that alternative, our historical understanding of all that was ultimately at stake, that makes Mary's sad story so compelling even today. Throw in the allure of romance that also always envelopes Mary (in contrast to her "Virgin Queen" cousin Elizabeth), and Mary's saga will always be perfect subject matter for the talented novelist.

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