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My Just Desire: The Life of Bess Raleigh, Wife to Sir Walter [Hardcover]

Anna Beer
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Aug. 26 2003
Young, beautiful, and connected by blood to the most powerful families in England, Bess Throckmorton had as much influence over Queen Elizabeth I as any woman in the realm—but she risked everything to marry the most charismatic man of the day. The secret marriage between Bess and the Queen’s beloved Sir Walter Ralegh cost both of them their fortunes, their freedom, and very nearly their lives. Yet it was Bess, resilient, passionate, and politically shrewd, who would live to restore their name and reclaim her political influence. In this dazzling biography, Bess Ralegh finally emerges from her husband’s shadow to stand as a complex, commanding figure in her own right.

Writing with grace and drama, Anna Beer brings Bess to life as a woman, a wife and mother, an intimate friend of poets and courtiers, and a skilled political infighter in Europe’s most powerful and most dangerous court. The only daughter of an ambitious aristocratic family, Bess was thrust at a tender age into the very epicenter of royal power when her parents secured her the position of Elizabeth’s Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. Bess proved to be a natural player on this stage of extravagant mythmaking and covert sexual politics, until she fell in love with the Queen’s Captain of the Guard, the handsome, virile, meteorically rising Ralegh. But their secret marriage, swiftly followed by the birth of their son, would have grave consequences for both of them.

Brooking the Queen’s wrath and her husband’s refusal to acknowledge their marriage, Bess brilliantly stage-managed her social and political rehabilitation and emerged from prison as the leader of a brilliant, fast-living aristocratic set. She survived personal tragedy, the ruinous global voyages launched by her husband, and the vicious plots of high-placed enemies. Though Raleigh in the end fell afoul of court intrigue, Bess lived on into the reign of James I as a woman of hard-won wisdom and formidable power.

With compelling historical insight, Anna Beer recreates here the vibrant pageant of Elizabethan England—the brilliant wit and vicious betrayals, the new discoveries and old rivalries, the violence and fierce sexuality of life at court. Peopled by poets and princes, spanning the reigns of two monarchs, moving between the palaces of London and the manor house outside the capital, My Just Desire is the portrait of a remarkable woman who lived at the center of an extraordinary time.

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From Publishers Weekly

Beer uses the life of Bess Ralegh (1565-1647?) to effectively illustrate the limited role of women in Elizabethan and Stuart England. During her nearly three decades of marriage to Sir Walter, he was largely absent because of expeditions or long stints in the Tower of London, and Bess was compelled to wear a number of "manly" hats: business manager, political infighter and guardian of her husband's reputation. As Beer makes abundantly clear, Bess succeeded quite nicely in all these roles. The couple were secretly married in 1591, while both were courtiers to Queen Elizabeth I. Beers stresses that the Elizabethan court was a dangerous place, filled with gossip and shifting loyalties. When news of the Raleghs' secret marriage leaked out, the queen considered the couple disloyal and imprisoned them. While in the Tower, Bess's infant son died. Beer uses Bess's pregnancy and childrearing as jumping off points to describe the life of mothers in Elizabethan England. Walter was imprisoned again (for treason) in 1603, and Bess lobbied tirelessly for his release and indeed, right before Walter's scheduled execution, he received a royal reprieve. When one of King James's favorites wanted to take Ralegh's home, Bess skillfully negotiated a highly favorable compensation package. After Ralegh was eventually executed in 1618, Bess worked heroically to rehabilitate his reputation. She was so successful that the "traitorous" Walter Ralegh is today viewed as the greatest hero of his day. This is recommended for those wishing to better understand the role of married women in Tudor and Stuart England.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The name of Elizabethan adventurer Walter Ralegh is familiar to many people, but few know anything about his wife, Bess. Born Elizabeth Throckmorton, her appointment as lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I was considered an important step for her family in an age when power and influence were achieved primarily through one's connections. At court she met the dashing Ralegh, and they were secretly wed. Ralegh was a royal favorite who had already had a hand in establishing a colony in North America and defeating the Spanish Armada, but this did not prevent his downfall when the queen learned of his marriage. Through years of Ralegh's imprisonment and further exploits to regain his status, it was left to Bess to keep the family estates together and preserve a legacy for her sons. The fact that it is not known exactly when she died attests to the difficulties involved in reconstructing the often hidden lives of women, even when they are prominent and powerful. Nevertheless, Beer fleshes out her readable account with fascinating details. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars One of England's great matriarchs June 9 2004
By ilmk
Format:Hardcover
Anna Beer's biography of Bess Ralegh follows a current trend amongst English literary historians who are intent on re-examining the supporting cast of English Tudor and Stuart history. In the same vein as Weir, Gristwood and Somerset, she has produced an in depth look at a single aristocratic female set against a common backdrop, in this case, Elizabethan England.
Opening with her own fictionalised account of Bess early morning as Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, we find our subject, Bess Throckmorton, five months pregnant which leads to a brief discourse on the sexual politics that pervaded much of Elizabethan politics. In chronological manner, Beer gives an early account of Bess life, of her Throckmorton relatives who constantly interfered in matters political meaning they often got send to Court, of her mother Anna and her presentation to the Court in 1584. Beer also weaves in an account of the major events of the time featuring Mary, Queen of Scots, Essex, Dudley et al before focusing on Bess' education which was "neither democratizing nor meritocratic". In parallel runs the biography of her future husband, Walter Ralegh and the sexual scandals that seem to have been rife at Court.
(...)
Beer, in a simple and entertaining style, has created a story of a woman who was, at first, infatuated with a charming adventurer, then married to one of the most powerful men in England, risking her Queen's fury, then a stoical and steadfast wife displaying brilliant political and legal acumen to keep the Ralegh and Throckmorton family afloat during years of political upheaval and royal dynastical change. Ever-loyal to her increasingly disillusioned husband and afterwards the consummate matriarch it lends credence to the statement that behind every great man there stands a greater woman.
Well worth reading.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of England's great matriarchs June 9 2004
By ilmk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Anna Beer's biography of Bess Ralegh follows a current trend amongst English literary historians who are intent on re-examining the supporting cast of English Tudor and Stuart history. In the same vein as Weir, Gristwood and Somerset, she has produced an in depth look at a single aristocratic female set against a common backdrop, in this case, Elizabethan England.
Opening with her own fictionalised account of Bess early morning as Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, we find our subject, Bess Throckmorton, five months pregnant which leads to a brief discourse on the sexual politics that pervaded much of Elizabethan politics. In chronological manner, Beer gives an early account of Bess life, of her Throckmorton relatives who constantly interfered in matters political meaning they often got send to Court, of her mother Anna and her presentation to the Court in 1584. Beer also weaves in an account of the major events of the time featuring Mary, Queen of Scots, Essex, Dudley et al before focusing on Bess' education which was "neither democratizing nor meritocratic". In parallel runs the biography of her future husband, Walter Ralegh and the sexual scandals that seem to have been rife at Court.
(...)
Beer, in a simple and entertaining style, has created a story of a woman who was, at first, infatuated with a charming adventurer, then married to one of the most powerful men in England, risking her Queen's fury, then a stoical and steadfast wife displaying brilliant political and legal acumen to keep the Ralegh and Throckmorton family afloat during years of political upheaval and royal dynastical change. Ever-loyal to her increasingly disillusioned husband and afterwards the consummate matriarch it lends credence to the statement that behind every great man there stands a greater woman.
Well worth reading.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating Dec 10 2007
By D. Montano - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I could not put this book down, enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. Some of the details were a little too much, but I loved learning something about running a household, women's rights (or lack of them)and the book is full of details about the many players of the times. I loved the book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Read Jan. 7 2009
By S. Gannon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I read "My Just Desire" because the herione, Bess Throckmorton, is one of my ancestors. Author, Beers, stays fairly close to the facts, and doesn't embellish with much fiction. Therefore, the story didn't fully capture my interest until I'd read sixty, or seventy, pages. However, once I was hooked, I didn't want to put the book down. The end was a bit anticlimactic, because there's not any known documentation of Bess's life after the death of her husband, Sir Walter Ralegh. I give the book 4 stars.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Remarkable Woman July 10 2010
By Loves the View - Published on Amazon.com
While the title sounds romantic, it's strictly business. It's taken from letter written by Bess Raleigh and it is fully characteristic of the style she used to obtain and re-obtain pensions, property, status and favors lost by the alleged treason of her husband.

Bess has not been developed by other writers and biographers of this period, but she is definately worthy of more study. Beer portrays the young Bess as being aware of the value of a relationship with Raleigh and willing to take risks to be in his orbit; This is a cunning Bess who would have been aware of the consequences and potential benefits of consumating her flirtation with one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites. The late date of the marriage (well into the pregnancy) shows Raleigh's hesitancy to marry her and also signals her first negotiating success.

While she had "won" a wealthy man, her status and luxurious life did not last long. She spent most of her married life working on recovering the losses resulting from Raleigh's alleged treason. Beer shows how Bess was very successful in a system that disinherits women and restricts their access to power.

Since Bess has been covered as only a Queen's attendant and spouse, there was a lot of detective work for Beer. She is careful to show what is known and to point out the gaps in the record. New material continues to be found, perhaps more pieces to this puzzle will fall into place.

I highly recommend this for readers of Tudor and Stewart years, as well as another biography by Beer: Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot
6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good Wife Bess Oct. 11 2005
By P A Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"My Just Desire," a superficial look at the life of an Elizabethan gentlewoman, leaves much to be desired. Peppering her writing with modern phraseology, such as "boy toy," author Anna Beer's diminishes both her subject and her readers' interest in it.

Better that the fascinating life of Bess Throckmorton, wife to Sir Walter Ralegh, had been treated in a more reverant and scholarly manner. This is a choice subject poorly limned.
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