Dream Lover

A Year and a Day

A Woman of Passion
by Virgina Henley
(Delacorte, $21.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-385-31820-0
My mother wants you to know she enjoyed reading A Woman of Passion and she would recommend it. (Lesson learned: Never let beloved mother read a book Iím reviewing before Iíve reviewed it, even if weíre both vacationing at the beach and sheís out of reading material.)

With all due respect to my very intelligent, Ivy-League-educated mother, I didnít enjoy this book as much as she did. Although the story line held my interest, it left me with the feeling that Iíd been cheated of the full story of an extraordinary woman.

The heroine in A Woman of Passion is Bess of Hardwick, an actual historical figure from Elizabethan England. Bess started with nothing and eventually became the wealthiest woman in England besides the Queen. She married four times and each marriage brought more wealth and stature; Horace Walpole, regarding Bessís marital success, penned the following:

Four times the nuptial bed she warmíd,
And evíry time so well performíd,
That when death spoiled each husbandís billing,
He left the widow every shilling...

A Woman of Passion is based on Bessís life from the time sheís barely a teenager and enters into service in the household of a wealthy Derbyshire family until her final marriage to one of the wealthiest men in England. It is, of course, a fictionalized account of this womanís life and I canít say that I didnít find it interesting.

I think Bess might have gotten a raw deal from historians, all men, who characterize her as selfish and greedy. She was certainly ambitious but few give her credit for founding a dynasty and building some of the finest, grandest homes of the period.

So while I like that Bessís story is being told from a more sympathetic perspective, I couldnít appreciate the spin doctoring of this womanís life. In order to give this a romance-like, happy ending, the story ends with Bess marrying her fourth and final husband.

While itís not historically inaccurate to say that her final marriage started out blissfully, it will leave readers thinking that Bess and her husband lived happily ever after -- which couldnít be further from the truth. Itís like writing Princess Diís story and ending the book right after her marriage to Prince Charles.

My mother thinks Iím being unfair, that the point is not to take the position of a historian but rather to simply enjoy the fictionalized account of this remarkable womanís life. I canít say that there arenít plenty of fascinating historical tidbits offered in this tale.

Many Tudor family secrets are disclosed in the story line. Elizabeth I, her cousin, Lady Frances Grey -- the mother of Lady Jane Grey who sat on the throne of England for only nine days before Bloody Mary Tudor imprisoned and eventually beheaded her -- all benefit from being written about by an author who has done her research.

Despite the fine historical color, you only get a taste of what Bess of Hardwick was really like and what she achieved. Also, Iím not as forgiving as my mother concerning the many anachronisms found in this book.

--Judith Flavell

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