Venus In Winter (A Novel of Bess of Hardwick) by Gillian Bagwell
Penguin July 2013
Paperback 435 pages
Review copy provided by the author, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:
My previous review of Gillian’s novel The Darling Strumpet
The author of The September Queen explores Tudor England with the tale of Bess of Hardwick—the formidable four-time widowed Tudor dynast who became one of the most powerful women in the history of England.
On her twelfth birthday, Bess of Hardwick receives the news that she is to be a waiting gentlewoman in the household of Lady Zouche. Armed with nothing but her razor-sharp wit and fetching looks, Bess is terrified of leaving home. But as her family has neither the money nor the connections to find her a good husband, she must go to facilitate her rise in society.
When Bess arrives at the glamorous court of King Henry VIII, she is thrust into a treacherous world of politics and intrigue, a world she must quickly learn to navigate. The gruesome fates of Henry’s wives convince Bess that marrying is a dangerous business. Even so, she finds the courage to wed not once, but four times. Bess outlives one husband, then another, securing her status as a woman of property. But it is when she is widowed a third time that she is left with a large fortune and even larger decisions—discovering that, for a woman of substance, the power and the possibilities are endless.
Bess of Hardwick has always been my absolutely favorite Tudor figure, and close behind her is Lettice Knollys. I was overjoyed when I heard that there was a novel in the works about her, though I was nervous about how her character would come through after I was totally disappointed with Philippa Gregory’s portrayal of her shrewish Bess in The Other Queen.
Bagwell does a phenomenal job of portraying the qualities of Bess that made me fall in love with her: strong, sensitive, intelligent, loving, and an accounting whiz. Well, she may not have been that last one but from previous reads and knowing that she seemingly was a phoenix rising from the ashes as far as her real estate properties go, she was a skilled business woman. Her marriages helped her in that regard, but she worked hard to keep what she could, and Bagwell portrays this diligent aspect of Bess perfectly. Her story begins as a child amongst those proverbial ashes and she goes to the noble houses to better secure her place in the Tudor courts. We watch Bess grow up and marry all along that glittery evil backdrop of Henry VIII’s wives and then the reigns of Henry’s children. Supporting characters include fellow courtiers and her family members, and of course eventually Elizabeth I and the ever changing political backdrop of rising and falling factions.
While this Tudoresque story is familiar to most, Gillian Bagwell offers a plausible sense of the world of Bess of Hardwick. The novel flows well because it is so character driven and focused on Bess’s life which humanizes the woman behind the house of glass that she is known for. While I was pleasantly enjoying the story throughout, the final scene tugged at my heart and I really loved the way it ended. And I was probably relieved that I did not have to repeat the events of her marriage to George Talbot, since it seems to be that particular marriage that had gotten the most coverage in the books I’d read before. This time, we get to experience Bess’s coming of age and how she got to where she was, giving us a truly empathetic portrait that will make you love her as much as I do.
One of the threads woven through this story was the fact the Bess would pray to God during the hard times or when her loved ones were facing the fierce royal ire of Kings and Queens. As a Christian fiction reader, this was very well done and I appreciated the additional tone this added, but of course this is subject to preference. As I told the author, I had high hopes for this novel on my favorite Tudor heroine, Bess of Hardwick. Thank you for surpassing my expectations, Ms. Bagwell! I loved the novel and recommend it to others interested in Bess of Hardwick.
Other reads on Bess that I recommend are two non-fiction works where I read before my ‘professional’ reviewing days, here are links to my amateur thoughts on these three titles:
Arbella by Sarah Gristwood
Bess of Hardwick Empire Builder by Mary Lovell
Bess was also featured in Philippa Gregory’s novel of Mary Queen of Scots, The Other Queen, but I disliked that portrayal very much and would not recommend it.