Really enjoyed this novel about real-life lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth the First, the Swedish Elin (Helena) von Snakenborg. Travelling with her queen to the court of the English ruler, we first meet Elin when her fiancé has abandoned her for her sister, her dowry has been spent, and she in a conflicted rather than heartbroken state as she makes the dangerous and long voyage from her home in Sweden to England.
Beautiful, smart and not overwhelmed by English court politics and games and understanding she has little to return home to, Elin is given a position at Elizabeth’s side. Earning the Queen’s trust and friendship, she is rewarded with marriage to the highest noble in the land, and becomes the Marchioness of Northampton – second only to the queen. Happy in her relationship, she also enjoys serving a ruler who demands the utmost loyalty from her woman and men, regardless of the personal cost.
Surrounded by Catholic traitors and those who plot to take her throne near and far, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth is both cautious and capricious and Byrd tries to capture the tension, beauty and fierce intellectualism and creativity of Elizabeth’s reign, using Helena (as she’s now called) as the lens through which to view it.
When her first husband dies and Helena remarries someone of much lower station, however, she is forced to choose, not just between her heart and her head, but between her loyalty to the throne and the man she loves.
Evoking the era, the personalities and the politics, the book works hard to be historically accurate but, sometimes, I felt as a reader is was at the expense of story. My favourite bits were those with Helena and her beaus, when fiction rather than fact were apparent. Byrd quotes from Elizabeth’s own correspondence as well as known documents of the time, so careful is she to be true to history, yet, sometimes, history drowns out narrative, turns the characters into two-dimensional beings rather than passionate (or not) living breathing beings with whom we feel invested. The use of the quotes (or words straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak) also make the book feel more like a non-fiction read at times than one that uses history as a backdrop to a wonderful story.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy it very much and can recommend to lovers of history and especially, the Tudor period.