- The Lady Elizabeth: A Novel
- Ballantine Books, 496 pp.
Love, Lust and Survival
Ah, the age of the Tudors. Blood, sex, and politics – what better brew to slake a modern thirst? When it comes to Henry the VIII and his clan, like the most committed of drunkards, we can never have enough.
In response to our insatiable demand, publishers have kept the shelves well stocked for the past twenty years. There have been biographies of early years, of middle years, of later years; fictions told by wives, by fools, by the king himself; broad, sweeping panoramic visions of England’s Renaissance and pickings apart of the nits at court.
Into this crowd stepped the historian Alison Weir, first with Innocent Traitor and now with The Lady Elizabeth. Although the one-woman-juggernaut Philippa Gregory, the megamonster Hollywood, and even the BBC have already covered Queen Elizabeth I’s time on the throne, her beginnings are more obscure but no less exciting.
The only daughter of Anne Boleyn, she was coddled while Henry VIII waited for a male prince, then neglected when Anne failed to deliver. Though officially declared a bastard, like her Catholic sister Mary, she remained an heir and was therefore a key piece in the chess game that resulted after the king’s death.
Living with her stepmother, Katherine Parr, the last of the king’s octet, and Katherine’s new husband, the rakish Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth acquired an intimidating education. She also acquired an unfortunate reputation, when Thomas Seymour began to make advances. Avoiding scandal by a hairsbreadth, the future Virgin Queen survived the chaos of her brother and sister’s reigns by never losing her head.
This is fabulous material for a book, but would that it had been a biography, not a novel. For Weir is a strong historian on shaky ground. She has all the details right – Elizabeth’s sweet tooth, international gossip about the madness of Spain’s Crown Prince, the mess and slime of life before the British discovered adequate plumbing.
Yet her attempt to fold her knowledge into a fictionalized drama does not always convince. The middle part of the book is concerned with a Sensational Revelation! as P.T. Barnum would have put it, but instead of committing wholeheartedly to the fun and schlock of a bodice ripper, the intelligent Weir wavers.
This means we end up with titillation bookended by intriguing character studies. In terms of the bookends, Weir is at her best when she’s dealing with Elizabeth’s relationship to her family. Mary’s uneasy love for, and jealousy of, her vibrant young sister comes across well, as does Henry VIII’s volatile nature and Katherine Parr’s motivations. When it comes to the lady herself, however, Weir has a challenge. Elizabeth’s public persona – smart, canny, fiery – is well known. But her private thoughts on love, religion, and her past are not – mainly because silence was the safest way to avoid being misinterpreted. To fill in the blanks, Weir uses the public to inform the imagined private. Here is the wise Elizabeth, for example, foreshadowing the time to come:
“Ah, but how do we know which is the right path?” Elizabeth cried. “Maybe my father, in his wisdom, can see which way the tide is turning, or can envisage a golden age in which each must be free to abide by his conscience.”
Fairly precocious for a thirteen-year-old, but Elizabeth was a precocious child. Now here is that same girl watching Thomas Seymour advancing across the lawn after a tennis game:
His hair was damp with sweat, so he must have been playing with some ferocity. One glance at his broad muscular chest, lightly covered in dark hair, and Elizabeth was lost. She had never seen anyone as pleasing to the eye, with all his limbs and features so well put together. What a proper man he was!
She knew of course that men were differently formed from women, and why, and she could not but surmise what wonders that well-stuffed codpiece concealed, although she had only the vaguest idea of how a naked man might appear…
Leaving aside the wonders of a well-stuffed codpiece for a moment, Weir has every right to present Elizabeth as a muddle of hormones in the middle. She was, after all, a teenager.
Nor can we fault her for portraying Elizabeth throughout as rash and canny and rash again. Elizabeth didn’t spring forth from her father’s head as a master politician. She had to learn by trial and error how to maneuver in her dangerous world.
If you’re going to mix brains with bosoms, however, you have to be very careful stylistically. Readers don’t mind sex, we’re very fond of it in some cases, but we do mind when it’s over the top.
And what jars in the racier bits jars overall. Underneath the adjectives and adverbs, there’s a streamlined, engaging book in here. It just needed a firm editor on passages like these:
As soon as Elizabeth entered her lodging at court, she saw the letter that had been pushed under the door. Warily, she stooped to pick it up.
“What is that?” asked Kat, coming in behind her, her face lively with curiosity.
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth replied, her heart heavy with foreboding. Warily, as if the letter were contaminated with poison, she broke the unstamped wax seal.
Weir says in her endnote that she makes no apology for weaving into her story a tale that goes against all her instincts as a historian, but her instincts are sound, and readers would be willing to trust them. It would be intriguing to see her tackle her next novel with a tighter style. With so many Tudor novels and films out there that are all about more, more, more, simple will stand out.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.