JOANNE PAUL recommends a dynamic biography of one of the Elizabethan age’s most savvy and influential women
Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England By Kate Hubbard Chatto & Windus, 384 pages, £20
In 1570, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots came face to face with her greatest adversary. This was not her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, who stayed well away and was largely ambivalent about Mary’s fate, but William Cecil, secretary of state, who was quite clear on his condemnation of the Scottish Catholic queen. The parties negotiated for two weeks, though their accords were never acted upon, leaving Mary to stew and scheme for another 17 years before Cecil finally succeeded in removing her as a threat.
Kate Hubbard’s Devices and Desires draws our attention to the setting for this historic meeting, Chatsworth House, and a figure in the background of the exchange: Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, better known to history as Bess of Hardwick. Bess, Hubbard shows, is rather like the buildings to which she dedicated so much of her energy and resources: often in the background of historic moments, on the periphery of many historians’ attentions. And yet, her strong, influential character lends a subtle shaping to key events.
Mary was at Chatsworth because Bess’s fourth husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was the queen’s jailor, but also because Chatsworth, as Bess had seen it constructed, was the perfect combination of security and comfort: ideal for housing a rival claimant to the English throne. The house was designed to be at the cutting edge of architectural style, with long galleries for display, dozens of panelled rooms, an orchard, ponds and a third storey with a second set of state rooms. Bess’s impressive stately home provided an extravagant prison indeed for a captive queen.
And Bess was more than a bystander in goings-on. It was while sharing needlework with Bess that Mary produced one of the most striking images associated with her: an embroidered panel showing a ginger cat toying with a grey mouse, a reflection perhaps of her relationship with her royal cousin Elizabeth. Mary also wrote a letter containing some of the gossip she had presumably gleaned from Bess: that Elizabeth was a nymphomaniac who had slept with much of her court, and that Bess and others laughed at the queen’s appearance, so hideous no one could look her in the face.
The advantage of Hubbard’s treatment of Bess is that it does not solely rely on her relationships with other notables, such as Mary, Queen of Scots or Elizabeth I, to demonstrate her importance to history. Instead, the focus is on Bess’s own achievements, particularly in building, which set her above many of her contemporaries. Given the patriarchal system in which she lived, this is a great testament to her strength and tenacity. Bess was, as a contemporary put it, “humble in speech and stout in actions”, and astute when it
Bess is often in the background of historic moments, on the periphery of historians’ attentions
came to manipulating to her own advantage systems designed to oppress her. The great overarching story of Devices and Desires is the building-up of Bess’s own sense of strength, purpose and independence: from teenaged bride and victimised young widow to defiant and purposeful businesswoman.
Like many popular histories, Hubbard’s book could go further in attempting to avoid the well-worn tropes of historical writing. This is especially the case with some of the surrounding characters, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, who falls into the usual category of the “alluring” woman but “fatally bad decision maker”, betrayed by her submission to the “swashbuckling”
Bess was astute at manipulating to her own advantage the systems intended to oppress her
Bothwell (who, it is casually mentioned, probably raped her).
Yet the book does succeed in painting a dynamic portrait of Bess’s life, using letters and other sources to give it colour. The strongest moments come when Hubbard makes creative use of oftenoverlooked sources, such as lists of purchases, to flesh out Bess’s daily life and surroundings, and how she sought to shape both. The fascinating relationship between Bess’s biography and her building projects is also brought to the fore.
Bess of Hardwick emerges from Devices and Desires as a fascinating and influential woman well deserving of many historians’ attention. By focusing on her as an innovative builder of some of Elizabethan England’s most impressive homes, Hubbard presents a facet of Bess that she herself would have wanted remembered by posterity.
Bess of Hardwick in a c1560s oil painting. A new book by Kate Hubbard examines her powerbroking and building projects