The Tudor period is a fascinating time – rapid change occurred in almost every sphere of English life. In just over one hundred years, England moved from being a medieval, middling-power, Catholic country through near-bankruptcy to being a Renaissance, world-changing, Protestant empire. A lot of things happened, a lot of things changed, and Bess Hardwick saw them all. She moved from being the daughter of middling gentry to being the wealthiest and one of the best connected women in the land. She had almost as much money as the Queen, and was grandmother to an apparent heir to the throne. She married four times, at least three of which started off very well, and was very careful and shrewd with her money.
It’s too bad, really, that such a fascinating time and such a fascinating woman didn’t have a more fascinating book. It wasn’t a bad book, really, and I’m glad I read it, but it was not nearly as good as I was hoping, and didn’t give as much of a sense of Bess herself as I was hoping.
It’s possibly because I read the Georgiana biography recently, which gave such a clear picture of Georgiana’s personality, that I was disappointed in the portrayal of Bess in this. In the Georgiana biography, I could imagine what Georgiana would do in almost any situation, whether it was in her own life or in today’s world. I didn’t get that same sense of Bess.
I want to stress that it wasn’t a bad book – it gave a wonderfully clear picture of life for the middle and upper gentry in Tudor times, the switching back and forth between Catholic and Protestant, the stress of living at a monarch’s whims. But I got a much better picture of Bess’s husbands – particularly William St Loe and the Earl of Shrewsbury – than I did of Bess herself.
Perhaps the best example of this lack of personality for Bess comes in the description of her friendships. She was fairly close to Queen Elizabeth, but it’s difficult to really be friends with your monarch. But Bess had a best friend, Lady Frances Cobham. Lovell refers to Lady Frances as Bess’s best friend and her closest female friend. Number of times she’s mentioned, according to the index? Five. How on earth are we supposed to get a sense of who someone was if we aren’t told anything about their relationships? And I don’t just mean their marriages or lovers, but what they talked about with their friends, what they did when they weren’t on display. I can’t imagine the story of my life being told without weaving in the story of my best friend – without all my friends. Or my sister’s life without hers. So why do we get a biography of Bess that mentions that she has a best friend but doesn’t say anything about where they met, how they became friends, what they did together.
And that’s just a symptom; throughout the book I never really felt like I knew Bess. I knew what happened in her life, to some extent, and I knew a lot about what happened to her family and the people around her, but I didn’t really feel like I knew Bess. And that was disappointing to me.