Watching a PBS presentation of the 1984 movie Amadeus a few days ago I was struck by the way Mozart’s future mother-in-law was presented. The woman was played for broad comedy as she interrupted a court musical event to push her
daughter, Constanza, forward as Mozart’s fiancée. Mothers intent on getting their daughters safely married to the best available husband have been a staple of comedy for centuries. Think of Jane Austen’s scorn for Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice as she fussed over her daughters’ prospects with any gentleman in sight. But for mothers in these circumstances, marrying off their daughters was their primary professional obligation. We may think they were frivolous, but with opportunities so limited for women, a good marriage was the best gift a mother could give her daughters; marriage was almost always the only fortune that would keep them from the shame and poverty of spinsterhood. Perhaps we should have more respect for these hard-working women as they went about fulfilling their obligations.
If we look back a few centuries earlier, the importance of mothers in ensuring the future of their daughters was recognized and respected, at least among members of the aristocracy. One of my favorite heroines of the past is Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. She worked hard not only to find a suitable marriage for her daughter but to make sure that she inherited the throne of Scotland and was safe from English imperialism. Yet while Mary Queen of Scots lives on in movies, plays, and novels, despite her spectacular failures in love and life, the elder Mary, her mother, is only a footnote to history. But it was Mary of Guise who had the brains and political skills to give her daughter a chance at keeping the Scottish throne.
Europe during the sixteenth century was not neatly divided into separate countries ruled by their own sovereigns. England and France struggled for control over Scotland and Mary of Guise was born into the powerful French family of Guise. Left a widow at 21 after the death of her first husband, March had a choice between marrying Henry VIII of England or James II of Scotland. She chose James, perhaps because he had no history of beheading his wives, or possibly because she wanted
to preserve the French-Scottish alliance that kept Scotland Catholic. At any rate, that marriage resulted in the birth of a healthy daughter, Mary, who became Queen of Scotland when she was six days old. Her father, James II, died unexpected and left Mary of Guise a widow for the second time at the age of 27. From then on Mary’s life was spent on an effort to strengthen the ties between France and Scotland and preserve the kingdom for her daughter. She was a shrewd politician am maneuvered her way through the tangle of Scottish lords and French aristocrats who felt they had the right to decide the fate of the country.
Perhaps if she had lived longer, Mary of Guise could have done more to strengthen the Scottish-French ties she supported, but like many people of her century she died young—at the age of 45 in 1560—and her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, in the end was put to death by the English Queen Elizabeth I. Scotland became a Protestant country and has closer ties with England than with France to this day. You can read more about this story in Mary of Guise a lively biography by Rosalind K. Marshall written as part of the “Scots’ Lives” series. It is not often found in American libraries, but it is worth searching for.
It’s not easy to view Constanza’s mother or Mrs. Bennet as inheritors of the same quest that Mary of Guise embraced, but in fact they were following her example. The easy laughs of modern audiences at the attempts of mothers to launch their daughters into matrimony ring hollow when we think about what serious work such efforts really represent.