The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots by Carolly Erickson is a sweeping 16th century saga that follows the tumultuous life of Mary Stewart from her days in France until her death. Mary inherits the throne of Scotland as an infant, leaving her mother, Marie de Guise, to serve as her regent. Although wed at a young age to the meek King Francis, Mary settles into the comforts of French court life and has little desire to return to her homeland. But when Mary is eventually widowed, it is the arrival of the charming and roguish James, Earl of Bothwell, that convinces her to return to Scotland with him.
Mary, however, is not prepared for the power struggles that divide her country and the anti-Catholic reception she receives and thus her authority is never firmly established. Bothwell becomes her closest advisor, but his obligation to marry another woman drives Mary to seek a husband elsewhere. When the self-absorbed Lord Henry Darnley arrives in court, Mary, like so many others, is drawn to his physical beauty, despite his selfish behavior. Although Bothwell warns her from him, Mary weds Darnley. The marriage is disastrous from the outset, the only blessing being the birth of her son, James. When Darnley is murdered, both Bothwell and Mary are implicated; but Bothwell manages to have his marriage annulled and he and Mary soon marry. Fighting the tide of public condemnation, they must take to the battlefield, where they are eventually forced to terms: Bothwell flees into exile and Mary is taken into captivity. In time, desperate to escape her Scottish enemies, Mary seeks refuge under the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England.
But Mary has reason to believe that her cousin seeks her death and she manages to escape her English captors to visit the Pope, who supports her efforts to reclaim her throne. But hopes gradually erode as plans fail to materialize and, after a long period wandering, Mary once again finds herself a prisoner of her indomitable cousin, Queen Elizabeth.
Although Erickson freely admits that some of this book’s events are her own interpretations, it is an enjoyable and worthwhile read for those interested in Mary Stuart or the period. It may even have benefited from expanding on some events, as Mary’s story is indeed a complicated and tragic one. The prose is unencumbered and Mary’s transition – from an indifferent adolescent queen, to the young woman in love with a hotheaded Scottish earl, to the wiser, more regal ruler who bears the responsibility of her birthright with grave determination – is believable and engaging. Erickson’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth as a very complex, sometimes enigmatic and decidedly imperative figure adds an intriguing layer to this standoff between royal cousins. By far, the highlight of The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots is the enduring love story between Mary and Bothwell, which one only wishes could have had a happier ending.