Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Unknown to History: a story of the Captivity of Mary of Scotland by Charlotte Mary Yonge

According to some accounts, Mary Queen of Scots bore a child to her last husband, the earl of Bothwell, while imprisoned at Loch Leven. In Unknown to History C.M. Yonge weaves the story of this child, linking it with that of her mother. According to the novel, the child is christened Bride, and put on a ship bound for France. However, the ship is wrecked on the Yorkshire coast. Bride, the sole survivor, is rescued by one Captain Talbot. He and his wife rechristen her Cicely, and rear her as their own. They are high-principled and loving, and Cicely has a happy and secure childhood at their manor house.
However, it is near the place where Queen Mary, having escaped from Scotland, is living under the charge of the weak Earl of Shrewsbury and his termagant wife, Bess of Hardwick. Captain Talbot, as a gentleman in the service of the earl, has to endure the violent quarrelling of the noble family and the constant intriguing that surrounds Queen Mary. As a result of these intrigues, Cicely's identity is revealed first to her foster parents, then to Queen Mary, and lastly, by her, to the girl herself.
Cicely joins the queen's household, and though unhappy at the atmosphere of deceit and the plotting, is devoted to her mother, shares her later imprisonment, and travels to London to plead for her life before Queen Elizabeth. Her pleas fail, and she herself is in danger. Her foster brother, who has long loved her, marries her and takes her to Holland, having previously attended the Queen's execution. After Queen Elizabeth's death they return to England, where Cicely spends the rest of her life in happy obscurity, unknown to history.
The characterisation of Cicely, and her foster mother, the gentle, prudent and resourceful Susan, is good, as is that of the fictitious male figures. The historical characters are well shown, particularly Queen Mary, and minor personages, such as Anthony Babington and Sir Amyas Paulett, are brought to life.
Major and minor historical events are linked to the lives of the characters. C.M. Yonge strives to give an unbiased picture of the historical figures and their actions, showing both the unscrupulousness and duplicity of the captive Queen, and the equally devious counterplotting emanating from the English side. There is also much interesting information about the ordinary life of country gentry, and that found in the great houses of the period.
Of overt moral teaching there is none, but the Talbot family are shown as having an integrity and unobtrusive piety which directs them through all their difficulties.



I've been crazy for anything Scottish ... since I don't even remember that far back.  When I was in college, I did a scene from Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland with one of my classmates for our semester project.  I don't claim to be an expert by any means, but I am an ardent fan.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story by Charlotte Mary Yonge.  It was interesting to read a book first published in 1882, using the language of the time, different from our own, to set a story in the mid-to-late 1500's, again with the different use of language at that time.  But of course, I love Shakespeare so formal language is like cake to me; and I've got a big sweet tooth!

What if Mary of Scotland had a daughter?  The book answers the question with one story of how it could possibly have gone.  Neither Cicely nor her adoptive parents, the Talbots, knew of her true identity until many years later, when a coded message found with the baby was translated.  Theoretically, they should have immediately reported their findings to the proper authorities.  But, considering what happened to Mary, they thought it would be safer for the girl (and for them) to keep it secret.  At the least, Cicely would have been imprisoned, and the loyalty of the Talbots would have been called into question.  In Tudor and Elizabethan England, they took treason v.e.r.y. seriously.

The political and religion of the time was a veritable Gordion's knot.  Some loyalties switched at the  drop of a coin or two, and others stood firm in the face of the stiffest possible penalties.  I'd really like to say that 'we know better' in this day and age, but we really don't.  But instead of beheadings, we generally just flame those different from (or opposing) us on Twitter or other social media.

It's amazing how much history you can pack into a fictionalized account of people's lives, and Charlotte Mary Yonge gives us a very entertaining account of the years of Mary of Scotland's captivity in England, terminating in her 'trial' and beheading.

If I had to say one thing not positive about the book ... well, the length (614 pp) is not something we run across to often in the 21st century.  It was taking me a while to read, and every once in a while, I thought I might read to a certain point and then read something else, so I could feel like I was getting somewhere.  But I never did.

I have been quite happy to add Unknown to History: a story of the Captivity of Mary of Scotland by Charlotte Mary Yonge to my "All Things Scottish" library section!



Brief biographical information from Wikipedia:

Charlotte Mary Yonge was born in Otterbourne, Hampshire, England, on 11 August 1823 to William Yonge and Fanny Yonge, née Bargus.
She was educated at home by her father, studying Latin, Greek, French, Euclid and algebra.

Yonge died in her hometown of Otterbourne on 24 May 1901. Her obituary in The Times said:
Her friends, and especially her poorer neighbours, knew both the strength and the winning charm of her character. Thus the late Archbishop Benson noted in his diary her ‘odd majesty and kindliness, which are very strong’.
But it is of course as a writer that Miss Yonge will be remembered. She had an inventive mind and a ready pen, and a bare list of the books written or edited by her would probably occupy nearly a whole column of The Times. She wrote chiefly for young people, especially young girls, and her books are the result not only of a strong ethical purpose, but also of her firm devotion to the High Church view of Christian doctrine and practice.


2017 Reading Challenge Information:
BetterWorldBooks RC
European RC
Shelf Love RC

Perpetual Reading Challenge Information:
Read One Million Pages


  1. I love historical fiction and this sounds like a fascinating read. I feel like I get a better sense of history through historical fiction because I can so easily visualize the characters and I understand more about the time period. Thanks for the recommendation. :)

    1. UR welcome, Jess! And it's a lot juicier than an old history textbook! ;)