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Weekend: Books - Brave wife who kept her head; Bess Ralegh: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife To Sir Walter. Constable. pounds 20.

Byline: Reviewed by David Faers

The 16th and 17th centuries were tough, unforgiving times if you were a woman -and you didn't have to be a domestic drudge at the lower end of the social scale to suffer.

Even women with royal blood or powerful connections could be on the receiving end of scorn, social isolation or even the unkindest cut of all -the headman's axe.

Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots -these were just a few of the women who quite literally lost their heads at a time when standing up for the wrong religion or even belonging to an out-of-favour family could mean imprisonment, interrogation, banishment, destitution and untimely death. This was a time when political intrigue was a kind of national sport for those close to the throne or jostling for positions of power up to and including the monarch's jewel-encrusted seat itself.

Courtiers like Sir Walter Ralegh savoured the heady highs -and suffered the miserable lows -that were part and parcel of this rollercoaster social and political life.

His story has been documented time and time again by historical biographers and Hollywood movie-makers.

Less -much less -well-known is the story of his faithful wife, a brave, energetic and resourceful woman whose fascinating tale is brought vividly to life in Bess Ralegh: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter .

Author Anna Beer, whose previous work includes an academic study of Sir Walter's political writings, spent a considerable amount of time and effort researching Lady Ralegh's life, piecing together the surviving evidence in the form of letters and diaries, biographies and other books, to achieve her aim.

That aim is to take the moments when Bess appeared in traditional biographies of Sir Walter -the innocent maid of honour deflowered by the virile Ralegh, the devoted wife and loyal widow keeping her husband's embalmed head with her at all times -and re-examine them from her perspective.

What emerges is a fascinating and courageous life of a powerful and complex woman -one of life's survivors. Which is just as well because life dealt her some incredibly risky hands.

She sacrificed her privileged position as gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber to Elizabeth I by marrying Sir Walter in secret and bearing his child. Banished from court, she endured the death of her tiny son and the subsequent execution of her husband during the reign of Elizabeth's successor, James I, and bounced back time and time again, making and losing a couple of fortunes at atime when finances were firmly in the control of the menfolk. Result: a compelling love story, historical thriller, tale of triumph over adversity, and vivid insight into the dangerous and political world of court life all rolled into one.

Anna Beer combines her academic credentials with the ability to tell a good story, combining extracts from original letters and diaries with a smattering of modern vernacular that helps to bring the characters to life -describing Elizabeth as someone who 'wasn't a morning person' and Sir Walter's loose-living fellow courtiers as an Elizabethan rat pack.

So engaging is the story that we share the author's frustration that significant moments remain obscure -often because documents have been ignored or, worse, destroyed -and that, although Bess reached advanced old age, surviving until 1647 or even 1648, the last documents that mention her directly date from July 1631.

Published by Constable at pounds 20, this is the kind of historical hardback that will surely reward repeated reading. And if there were any justice in this world, this previously unsung heroine would surely have rated a mention in the recent list of Top 100 Britons.


Sir Walter Ralegh married Bess in secret, which led to her banishment from court; Bess Ralegh, pictured as a young woman in 1591, was brave and resourceful during an unforgiving age
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 7, 2004
Previous Article:Weekend: Change as good as the rest.
Next Article:Weekend: Books - Fiction and fact merging into life and death.

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