Historical Fiction Roundup 6: Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick by Gillian Bagwell

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury – Bess of Hardwick – was one of the most prominent noblewomen of the Tudor era. She is best known for her role in Elizabeth I’s reign as a Lady of the Privy Chamber, wife to the jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, and champion of the succession rights belonging to her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart. Bess’s early life, first three marriages, and rise to prominence at court have received much less attention. In Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick, Gillian Bagwell, author of The Darling Strumpet: A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II and The September Queenrecreates the rise of Bess of Hardwick from obscure country gentlewoman to Elizabethan courtier.

There have been numerous novels published in recent years about the court of Henry VIII but most of these books focus on the King’s six wives and their immediate attendants. Bagwell’s novel stands out from the rest because it shows how a sixteenth century English gentlewoman could rise in society through service in noble households rather than the King’s pleasure. Bagwell portrays Bess’s childhood in terms that will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen. The Hardwicks live in genteel poverty and the best chance of improving their fortunes is for Bess to make a good marriage. Joining the household of her distant relation, Lady Zouche then that of Frances Grey (mother of the nine days queen, Lady Jane Grey) enables Bess to make the connections necessary to marry into the elite of Tudor society.

Bess’s position at the margins of the court during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I provide a unique window into Tudor era politics. While the most prominent courtiers such as Edward VI’s uncles, the Seymours or his advisor, the Duke of Northumberland aspired to control the succession, the majority of noble families sought royal favour regardless of who emerged as King or Queen. Throughout the novel, Bess’s household leaves London whenever there is an succession crisis as her patrons and husbands fear being forced to pledge allegiance to a particular candidiate before their succession is ensured. The most disastrous outcome for a Tudor nobleman or woman was to be associated with the cause of an unsuccessful claimant to the throne. Bess’s friendship with the Grey family, Lady Frances and her daughters Jane, Catherine and Mary, proves dangerous as allegiances shift at court.

While most historical novelists write in contemporary parlance, adding the occasional “mayhap” to indicate the time period, Bagwell has a keen eye for Tudor turns of phrase. Henry VIII welcomes Lady Zouche to court as the “beauteous” wife of his friend, Sir George and the young Bess is reminded that “there is still work for idle hands.” Bagwell even separates court from country gentry by their speech. After years serving in noble households, Bess finds that she speaks very differently from her brother James, who remained at Hardwick with her mother. The dialogue shows how the Tudor elite might have expressed themselves while still remaining accessible for the general reader.

The first two thirds of the novel are the strongest as Bess learns how to behave at court, marries her first two successive husbands and struggles for her rights as a widow. Bagwell portrays Bess’s third marriage as a passionate romance, which puts more focus on her feelings for her husband than her keen observations of Tudor court.By the end of the novel, however, Bess is once again facing an uncertain future in the midst of Tudor court politics. I hope that Bagwell will write a sequel to Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick that will cover the second half of Bess’s life as she became one of Tudor England’s most influential noblewomen.

 

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One thought on “Historical Fiction Roundup 6: Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick by Gillian Bagwell

  1. Thanks for the lovely review! Another pleasing bit of information for those interested in the current royal family is that Bess is the ancestor of many of today’s noble families of Britain, including the royal family. Prince William and Prince Harry are descended from Bess through both parents!

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