Tuesday 2 October 2018

Counterpoint: Barbara, Lady Villiers by Elizabeth St John

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Novella / Biographical Fiction

In The Lady of the Tower, Ms St. John depicted an intriguing—and infected—relationships between two sisters, namely Lucy St. John and her older sister, Barbara. Barbara is vain, ambitious and utterly ruthless, crushing whoever may stand in her way. This includes Lucy, who has her very young heart beaten to a pulp due, in part, to Barbara’s actions.

Both Lucy and Barbara are historical people—Ms St. John brings to vivid life these 17th century members of her family, the intrigues that surrounded them, the corrupt court that was the centre of their world—or at least Barbara’s world. Lucy never aspired to wield power.

In Counterpoint, Barbara, Lady Villiers, Ms St. John gives the reader a glimpse into the complicated personality that is our Lady Villiers. Ridden by the demons of ambition and fear—fear of losing the position she has, fear of being outshone by someone else, of not delivering as required by her brother-in-law, the glittering Duke of Buckingham, Barbara does what she has to do to safeguard her future and that of her children. While this novella is light on the action, it is heavier on the introspection—well, Barbara’s brand of introspection, which essentially is a legitimisation of her actions.

As always, Ms St. John delivers an exquisite little peephole into the 17th century world, complete with a brief but titillating portrait of George Villiers, the elegant and oh, so handsome Duke of Buckingham. There he lounges, as satisfied as a sleek cat, while all around everyone from the king to Barbara dances to his tune, eager to curry his favour. His clothing is so encrusted with jewels and gold Barbara can scarcely make out the fabric beneath. He is charming and subtle—but as lethal as a coiled cobra. No wonder George dazzled the English court. No wonder Barbara at times resents that she is married to the other Villiers brother, the substantially duller—if as handsome—Edward.

It is to Ms St. John’s credit that she does not attempt to exonerate Barbara—or present her as being someone else other than who she is. Barbara—even from Barbara’s POV—is as determined to do what it takes to get to the top as she is in Ms St. John’s other books. She remains as vain, as ambitious, as ruthless. But if you ask Barbara, everything she does, she does for her family—including her younger sister, Lucy.
I suspect Lucy would not quite agree…

© Anna Belfrage

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