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Review: Venus in Winter by Gillian Bagwell

Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick
by Gillian Bagwell

Born to a family of middling means, Bess is twelve when she is sent to live with the Lady Zouche as a lady-in-waiting. As part of Lady Zouche's party, Bess is brought to the court of Henry VIII, where the country girl is awed by the splendor and pageantry. She is witness to the king's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, and even befriends the young Katherine Howard. While Henry VIII's marriages seem destined to end in disappointment, Bess' own marriages fare well. Her first husband, a teenager like herself, dies while still quite young. Her second husband is significantly older than Bess, but theirs is a happy union, blessed with eight children (though not all survive). But even as her domestic life thrives, court becomes a very dangerous place as the children of Henry VIII - first Edward, then Jane Grey, then Mary and finally Elizabeth - all vie to first take and then keep their thrones.

Gillian Bagwell's novel covers the first half of Bess' life, from her childhood in the countryside up until the beginning of her fourth marriage, when she became the Countess of Shrewsbury. Bess' meteoric rise would be impressive in any age, but to have gained such wealth and position as a woman in Tudor England...well, I've always been mightily impressed with her. She was intimate with queens and built some of England's most impressive houses, including Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth.

Bess, in this novel, is pretty and pleasant. She's definitely clever and hard-working, too. But I liked that she isn't depicted as a total shrew, as some other versions of her, written by other authors, have been. This Bess is quite likable and fun. The book is rich with details about life under the various Tudor rulers, and really brings to life the religious conflict that rocked the country as rulers switched from Protestantism to Catholicism and back again within the span of a few years.

One small issue that I had with the book was that Bess was not royal, and often – especially during her fertile years when she seemed to be constantly pregnant – she was removed from the main action. So she learns about life at court through long, information-heavy conversations with visitors. The dialogue at these times was rather like reading Wikipedia entries about the major events from the time. It also ensured that from time to time Bess would be overtaken as the focus of the story, even though this novel is supposed to be about her. But I suppose that any book dealing with this time period would feel the need to do something similar – certainly, to be able to rise so quickly Bess must have been very astute and aware of the politics of her era.

I have not yet heard whether Bagwell intends to write a sequel that continues Bess' story. I hope that it is in the works, because some of the most exciting events of the woman's life are yet to come – including the lodging of Mary, Queen of Scots in her house for fifteen years and an attempt to make her granddaughter heir to the throne of England!

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Venus in Winter, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Codename Sailor V, Vol. 1 by Naoko Takeuchi
2011: Taking a break...
2010: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
2009: Winter's Child by Cameron Dokey
2008: Contest: The Heretic's Daughter


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