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Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder Paperback – June 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Born into the minor nobility, Bess of Hardwick rose to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth I. Lovell (The Mitford Girls) presents Bess's life as a study in how education, connections, marriage and property management shaped the life of women in the 16th century. Bess served in noble and royal households at key points in the tumultuous years of Henry VIII and his three children, helping her fourth husband guard Mary, Queen of Scots, and raising her own granddaughter Arbella Stuart with aspirations to England's throne. Becoming a successful manager in partnership with her second husband, William Cavendish, she built up properties and incomes through the rest of her life. Lovell assumes that Bess had a charm that drew people to her, yet it's hard to sense that personality in this account. The reader is repeatedly taken away from Bess by background stories, including a variety of court matters and detailed accounts of the Scottish queen and the career of Bess's somewhat obscure third husband. Family squabbles over property and incomes and the spectacular breakdown of her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury dominate the latter part of the book. While all these elements give a good sense of the times, Bess herself is only beginning to emerge on her own. B&w illus. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Born in the reign of Henry VIII, Bess of Hardwick was one of those many outstandingly colorful individuals who populated an especially eventful period in English history. Her family was "respectable gentry," not especially distinguished, but Elizabeth Hardwick made four prosperous marriages, the result being that she died the second wealthiest woman in the kingdom, after Queen Elizabeth. The author of this straightforward biography, letting facts and details build to a solid, three-dimensional portrait, finds from her copious research a woman with intelligence and drive but a far less manipulative individual than history often remembers her. The extra appeal of this book, in addition to the pleasure it affords of meeting a fascinating person, is the wide-angle picture it delivers of Tudor society outside the royal court. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393330133
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393330137
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #949,747 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca Huston on May 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover
When I found out that there was to be an extensive biography of one of Tudor England's non-royal women, that title zipped to the top of my must-read-it-now list. And I was delighted to discover that this book did not disappoint at all. Author Mary S. Lovell is entertaining to read, with a narrative style that doesn't get too bogged down in the minuitae, and stays on topic.

Born as the younger daughter of a family of 'gentlemen farmers,' Elizabeth Hardwick -- always called 'Bess' -- was neither particularly pretty or wealthy. Deprived of her father, and with a mother who remarried quickly and had more children, Bess would have been completely unnoticed if it wasn't for the fact that she had, it seemed, a remarkable charm. A slight family tie to the powerful Grey/Brandon family gave her an entree to Tudor society, and Bess married early, at about the age of fourteen to her first husband, Robert Barlow, a boy two years younger than she, and it seems rather frail. When he died, Bess had her first taste of wealth and security with her widow's portion, and discovered that it was exactly what she needed in life.

Of course, it didn't hurt that she had a friendship with Lady Frances Brandon, the wife of the Marquess of Dorset. A niece of Henry VIII, Lady Frances was one of those people who knew everyone, did it well, and took a shine to Bess. And with the help of Frances, Bess met Sir William Cavendish, one of the King's 'New Men,' and an officer that was assigned to work in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He was smitten with Bess, and despite a wide age difference -- he was more than twenty years older than she -- she evidently adored him.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By PMcC-DC on August 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Mary S. Lovell is a much more skillful writer and story-teller than most serious historians writing about Tudor figures; her full coverage of Bess's long life is a pleasure to read.

Lovell makes her strongest contributions in recounting Bess's early life, especially the significance of her connections with the family of Lady Jane Grey. Thanks in part to her own coincidental family connections, Lovell has also rescued Bess's third marriage to Sir William St. Loe from historical obscurity.

While the book is highly readable throughout, the later sections-- roughly from the marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury onward-- don't really add much new ground versus David N. Durant's earlier "Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast." Durant tells a more interesting account of Bess's building projects at Hardwick; provides more drama as he recounts the eventual conflict between Bess and her granddaughter Arbella Stuart; and covers Bess's mastery of the legal system in fascinating detail, something Lovell largely overlooks in her emphasis on personal relationships. Neither author has quite solved the dilemma of how to present Bess's life during the period it was dominated by her husband's custody of Mary Queen of Scots, but Lovell offers more insight and an impartial stance in assessing how and why the Shrewsburys' marriage broke down. Lovell occasionally gets sidetracked by other figures around Bess, notably the Earl of Essex at one stretch late in the book.

These are fairly minor quibbles, though. Overall, Lovell has produced a highly successful biography, a book that really paints a nuanced and persuasive portrait of Bess. This is undoubtedly the single best account of Bess's remarkable life.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A. Woodley on December 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Mary S Lovell has written two of my favourite biographies and I find her work generally excellent. She is very considerate of her subjects, but also very thorough, digging through screeds of papers to find information not previously discovered by other biographers. With Jane Digby and with her biography on the Mitfords she provided new and at times stunning insights into their lives.

She has done so again with Bess of Hardwick, interestingly a distant past relative of Dukes of Devonshire. Certainly she has put this woman into persepctive of her time. In her introduction to the biography she writes that Bess was the second most powerful woman in Tudor Times next to Elizabeth the first, an extraodinary feat given that woman at that time had few legal or property rights. She was born just before Elizabeth 1 and died after her, so their times were very much reflected.

However the introduction also introduces the reservations she has. Firstly that there is almost nothing written or in reference to Bess's early years, and so Lovell has had to make large jumps on faith in what what happened or what was likely. She has clearly researched the period thoroughly, the customs, the religious practices, the geographical situation she found herself in and political expediencies of the time. However as the old saying goes, "one swallow does not a summer make" - and simply because this is how things were generally done in these times does not mean that this is how Bess did them. So I found it somewhat annoying that Lovell talked with seeming certainty (and no clear documentary evidence) of how Bess would have been christened, given to a wet nurse, educated and so on.
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