Author: Kate Hubbard
Source: from publisher for review
Summary: This book was full of fascinating information, but the surprisingly heavy focus on architecture meant it was sometimes dry anyway.
“Aided by a quartet of judicious marriages and a shrewd head for business, Bess of Hardwick rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most respected and feared Countesses in Elizabethan England—an entrepreneur who built a family fortune, created glorious houses—the last and greatest built as a widow in the 70s—and was deeply involved in matters of the court, including the custody of Mary Queen of Scots.” (source)
There was a lot to love about this book! What drew me to it is the focus on a woman who had power and influence during a time period when that was a rarity. The author definitely delivered on that promise. She did a great job providing the context that showed why Bess’s achievements were so impressive. Morality and conduct guides at the time specified pretty explicitly that women were supposed to be subservient (gross!). Women were also not officially allowed to own property, so it was fun to see the loopholes Bess exploited to end up with property and income she controlled.
I also appreciated that the author highlighted some other impressive women. She noted that many other women upper class women were more educated than Bess. It was also not unusual for wives to manage property that technically belonged to their husband. Bess did clearly have a particular talent for accumulating property and a strong interest in architecture. But she was not unique, not someone the author was portraying as ‘not like other girls’. Rather, she was one of a few women who managed to defy social constraints in particular ways.
The author generally treated Bess’s character in a nuanced way. She uses letters to show when romance and/or pragmatism are likely to have played a role in Bess’s marriages. She let us see Bess at her best and at her worst, judging for ourselves when she was controlling or protective; loving or distant; harsh or simply willing to stand up for herself. The author managed all this without ever hitting us over the head with a feminist message (*coughWhenWomenRuledTheWorldcough*). In fact, when I describe this book as a feminist, I really just mean two things. First, the author acknowledged they way sexist constrains on women shaped Bess’s world. And second, she treated Bess just like any other character, showing the full complexity of her personality.
In addition, the author had a lot of interesting material to work with here. There were family feuds! Court battles! An imprisoned queen! Even a suspected poisoning! These parts of the story were as exciting as you would expect. Through primary sources, the author managed to make these events feel immediate and personal. I also enjoyed learning about the daily lives of Bess, her family, and the people who worked for them. Personally, I found even information drawn from grocery lists enjoyable. Likewise, architectural details and the houses people were building were interesting to me as long as they shed some light on how people lived at the time.
Unfortunately, this brings me to the reason I’m only giving this book three stars, despite having so many positive things to say about. So much of this book was architectural details! We also often got lists of names of people who were building houses; who were socializing with Bess; or who were building one of her houses. When the details of a building or the lists of names weren’t connected to how people lived their lives, I didn’t care about them. They made parts of this book into very dry reading material. It’s possible I should have anticipated the focus on building a little more, given the subtitle. However, building is only mentioned once in the description, so I was not prepared for detailed descriptions of the home of people only tangentially related to our story.
In some places, the author does impressive work making quotidian details of Bess’s life interesting. I debated giving this book a higher rating because I do think it’s worth reading. It contains fascinating information I’d not learned anywhere else. At the end of the day, though, my rating primarily reflects how much I enjoyed reading a book and this one wasn’t always a fun read. I do recommend it though, if the topic is of interest to you – and especially if you’re interested in architecture as well!