Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter

Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter

Rating: 4 Stars


I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review from the publisher, Endeavour Press.

First and foremost, this book made me want to punch Ralegh in the face. It took him how long into their marriage to see Bess as an asset? What a tool. But of course she could not just divorce him, nor did she want to because she loved him, but good lord. He was just a raging d-bag much of the time. I was particularly incensed when he was released from The Tower and Bess was left prisoner, with their young child - who succumbed to the plague that was ravaging the city. How sad for Bess that not only was she still locked away and her husband was off ignoring her and their marriage, but to lose a child.

While on the subject of Bess and her first child, this text served to reaffirm my general disdain for Elizabeth: "It was, however, no coincidence that Bess and her baby were left in plague-ridden London" (27%). Time and again Elizabeth is spoiled and manipulative. And as always, there is the glossing-over of her role in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was not just "counselors giving orders, and the execution being carried out". Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing when she signed the warrant. She knew it would be carried out and I do not believe for one moment that she felt bad about it.

But, back to Bess. She on the other hand, turned out to be quite a remarkable woman who endured much hardship throughout her lifetimes in order to provide for her family. She had no choice, after all, seeing as how her husband was absent much of the time on ill-fated adventures, chasing myths. Walter has the nerve to be all pissed off about Bess supposedly ruining his career with their marriage, yet I am pretty sure he had a part in it...or it would not have been a marriage. To him I would say, Man up, Buttercup. Luckily it seems as though he came to value her more and more as their marriage went on, through his terrible decision-making, and in the end she would be the one to promote her husband's legacy. Much of the time I felt sorry for Bess, thinking how sad and lonely it must have been to have had a husband who was off gallivanting around, wasting the Queen's money and drawing her ire more often than not. But luckily there is plenty of evidence to show what Bess' life was like and with a full household, she really could not have been lonely very often. Especially early on in the marriage, it is of comfort to know that Bess had her brother and family and household to support her, even as her husband still did not publicly even acknowledge the marriage despite having been married a few years.

The author does as well a job as she can in bringing Bess to life. The story is quite detailed in some aspects, but there are several occasions though where it felt like this was just as much a biography of her husband and the times as it was of Bess. This is to be expected and the author can not be faulted, as it would be more unusual for us to have heaps of information about any woman who was not a ruler or very near the top of the social ladder. This aspect is important, I think, for us to understand who Bess was and  how she became a strong, shrewd businesswoman/lawyer, so to speak. It felt like early on, Bess and Walter's stories were almost separate, as they themselves were physically so far apart at times. But gradually their stories came together, especially in those later years when Walter was spending more and more of his time being a prisoner instead of an explorer.

Some of Bess' letters survive, as do many of Walter's and - surprise, surprise - he rarely, if ever, mentions his wife until later, when he came to rely on her quite heavily. To be honest, overall I really just found that Walter Ralegh was kind of a douchenozzle at first. I realize douchenozzle is not a very professional term, but I was just so angry at him for most of the book. Don't get me wrong, there are some questionable decisions Bess made at various points in her life as well, but if he really felt Bess was a hindrance to him (and he KNEW Elizabeth was a giant baby who would have a fit when she discovered his marriage), then why did he never seek a divorce? If he had ever considered it, I am sure that by the end of his life he was glad he did not, as Bess never stopped working for him, to keep her family together and to regain the family inheritance for their only surviving son, Carew.

In the end, we do not actually know how or when the life of this incredibly strong, remarkable woman came to a close. I find this unsurprising, albeit sad. She survived her husband's execution and told his story, built up his legacy. But when Bess passed, there was no one to do so for her. Luckily for us, the author made wonderful use of surviving letters, documents, court papers, and such so we can have a more full portrait of an unusual woman in dangerous times. Highly recommended.

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