The Queen's Tragedy, by R. H. BENSON. Hutchinson and Co., n.d. (1920s?) 287 pp. Blue cloth covers, spine a little faded, pages considerably tanned throughout, endpapers also, text clean and tight.
History, as a very precocious 10 year old pupil of mine once gravely informed me, is what is written down by those who won. The losers rarely get a look-in.
Hilary Mantel has recently rehabilitated Thomas Cromwell. R. H. Benson attempted something even harder in his historical novel The Queen's Tragedy, since the queen in question is Mary Tudor, who burned so many of the Protestant martyrs. Yet while not extenuating the horror of those burnings, Benson does manage to humanise a figure, who is usually presented as one of the great monsters of the British monarchy. Much of the novel's action is seen through the eyes of one Guy Manton, a Catholic gentleman who is fiercely loyal to his Catholic monarch, and sometimes also through the eyes of Mary's Maids of Honour, Jane Dormer and Magdalene Dacre.
This is very much what one might have expected from a Catholic Monsignor such as the book's author, who would be bound to present a partisan account. And yet, such is the author's intelligence, humanity and skill, that the reader is drawn in from the very beginning. A lot of genuine historical research lies behind the story told within these pages. The characters are well differentiated; and there's an especially astute mini-portrait of Mary's sister, waiting at Hatfierld for the crown to pass to her.
Historical novels have become more and more 'respectable' within literary circles of late, and to rediscover one from an earlier age that has real quality is always a fresh delight.