A touchstone is a very smooth, fine-grained, black, or dark-colored variety of quartz or jasper used for testing the quality of gold and silver alloys by the color of the streak produced by rubbing them upon the stone. In other words, it is something which serves to test or try the genuineness or value of anything. An acid test, a litmus test, a criterion. In As You Like It, Shakespeare has a character named Touchstone, “a wise fool,” who acts as a guide, putting everyone in the play to the “comic test.” Touchstones are important because they allow us to test the value of our reading material and Friday night film choices to see whether they are made of gold or some base metal.
For me, a small-town girl in a house with few books who practically lived in the local Carnegie Library, two writers are my touchstones. One, Eleanor Alice Burford, wrote over 200 books that sold over 100 million copies. She wrote under eight pen names, but I knew her as Jean Plaidy. Her queenly subjects, the Norman, Plantagenet and Tudor queens, Catherine de Medici, Mary Stuart, Lucrezia Borgia, Isabel of Castile, and Victoria, were catnip. But then, when I was sixteen, I discovered Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. Fraser is that rare author who is lauded in the US and UK for both her scholarly work and her popular fiction. In addition to the biography of Mary Stuart, she has written, so far, a dozen books on both royal non-royal women in early modern England and France.
The biography of Mary Stuart was a revelation. I devoured that book. I was drawn to Mary, and not just the romantic drama of her life. Mary, in Fraser’s hands, grabbed me in a way no other historical figure had, at a time when I needed something hefty and erudite about a woman who simply defied expectations. I admit it, I relished the tempestuous drama and romance, but I loved the book’s hefty erudition. I was proud to read a serious book with endnotes and a bibliography and two genealogy tables, one in the front, one in the back. It did not contain paintings of pre-Raphaelite damsels—these were real portraits of people with imperfect noses. I wanted to know everything I could about her—her growing up and her marriages, of course, but also her tenacious fight for her crown and her life with her cousin Elizabeth I of England.
I didn’t know then that my search for answers about Mary would captivate my imagination and serve as the springboard for a PhD in medieval European history and teaching and research about women who never fail to fascinate me. I had no idea it would take me to Spain. When I think I’m done with a project, that I’ve gone as far as the sources will take me, I open another letter from a queen to her sister or an archbishop or a troublesome nobleman, and I’m once again caught up in the complex web of men, women, and power. No matter where I am—in an archive in Spain or the British Library—in my heart and head, I am in the Carnegie Library, with its dark cool stacks and the librarians who kept the catnip coming.