You probably know I love Scottish history, so it’s no surprise that when I had a wander round Waterstone’s last weekend I ended up walking out with Theresa Breslin’s Spy for the Queen of Scots. It tells the story of the fictional Lady Ginette, better known as Jenny, a lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, who, after witnessing a suspicious exchange between Catherine de’ Medici and a French nobleman, turns spy on Mary’s behalf.
One of the topics debated by historians is the question of whether Mary was a bad queen or a woman in a position where she could do no right. Breslin’s Mary is in the latter category. Compassionate and open-minded, Mary strives to do what is best for her people, but her kind heart means she trusts those who are not loyal to her and falls in love with a selfish, spoilt man-child. Firmly Catholic, she comes to blows with Calvinist preacher John Knox, who believes that no woman has the capacity to rule a country, let alone a Catholic, even though Mary is happy to allow her people to worship as their own conscience dictates, asking only that they extend the same respect to her.
But this story isn’t about Mary. It’s about Jenny, her lady-in-waiting who, unbeknowest to her friend, spies on Mary’s courtiers, friends, and even relatives in order to protect her queen. From her first husband’s mother to Protestant Scots nobles and everywhere in between there are people who wish Mary harm, and Jenny, though inexperienced in espionage, takes it upon herself to identify these threats.
The shape of the narrative is unusual, for there is no single, overarching plot against Mary or mystery for Jenny to unravel. Rather, there are a series of events from Mary and Jenny’s teen years in France to their adulthood in Scotland. The closest thing to an underlying narrative is, instead, Jenny’s relationship with Sir Duncan Alexander, a Scots noble who serves as Mary’s confidant and protector. Jenny is both in love with Duncan and wary of his motives as, like so many of the nobles vying for power, his aims are not always transparent. This unusual story arc, however, is suited to the historical narrative. Throughout her reign Mary was the subject of numerous plots by those eager to seize power or simply wary of a Catholic monarch, and rather than hinge the storyline upon a single one Breslin has chosen to show how they affect Mary and Jenny over the years, culminating in Mary’s loss of power. Moreover, the extended time period shows how easily Mary both gained and lost public support throughout her reign in Scotland, with her people equally eager to see her lauded or imprisoned at various times, often as a result of the machinations of her half-brother and other courtiers.
The novel is related by an older Jenny looking back, who sometimes makes cryptic remarks about people or events. On David Rizzio’s appointment as Mary’s secretary, for instance, she comments that the level of trust Mary places in him would have disastrous consequences. Again, I think this works well in a novel so closely linked to the historical record of the politics of Mary’s reign, because it would impossible to try and write Rizzio’s relationship with Mary on the assumption that the audience does not know his eventual fate. At the same time, however, Jenny’s comment is ambiguous enough that a reader unfamiliar with the context would feel only a general sense of unease, rather than having the story spoiled.
Spy for the Queen of Scots is a richly-detailed story set in Scotland during a time of great political and social change. Steeped in historical detail, it interprets the life and reign of Mary, Queen of Scots in the context of this volatile political landscape and the opportunists who took advantage of it.
Like Mary and Jenny, Nicola lives in Edinburgh, with less espionage and better heating. You can find her on Twitter.