Having read many of Alison Weir’s non-fiction books and thoroughly enjoying her fictive spin on the early years of Elizabeth Ist, I was looking forward to reading The Marriage Game, which covers the years Elizabeth was upon the English throne.
Taking as its main focus Elizabeth’s Privy Council’s and, indeed, the entire Parliament and country’s obsession with her need to get married and produce an heir, and the queen’s attempts to fob them off through procrastination, broken promises, assurances and games as it’s premise, the novel also highlights the steamy and stormy relationship between Elizabeth and her favourite courtier, Robert Dudley.
It’s clear that Weir knows her history. As her wonderful non-fiction books attest (The Life of Elizabeth I and The Princes in the Tower are my favourites), she uses her formidable understanding of Elizabethan politics and times to infuse the novel with veritas, even using direct speech from reports and letters of the times and known events to add grist to her marriage mill. The reader is drawn into Elizabeth’s world, its male-dominated court and the religious and global politics that threaten and sustain its power. A constant balancing act is required (by the author, reader and the characters) which means the queen and her council must be both vigilant and yet warm towards the various international diplomats that populate the court – offering salves to wounded pride, playing various proposals and dignitaries off against each other and trying to second guess intentions.
Mercurial and demanding, Elizabeth is the heart and soul of this story, as indeed she was of the times (they’re not recalled as the Elizabethan period for no reason). Yet, it’s hard to like this vain queen or the men who surround her. Self-interest is paramount and weasel words are currency.
We know from history that Elizabeth was a difficult and selfish woman who would readily strike those who displeased her, send people to the tower for marrying without permission (even those without royal blood) and who saw most other women as potential competition and so banned them from court. She struggled with ageing (in that, she was very like many modern women, which reveals struggling with growing older isn’t necessarily a contemporary preoccupation) and was concerned not be redundant. Encouraging flattery, she also doled it out and was a flirt par excellence, even as an older woman – these are all facts.
While the queen’s relationship with Dudley, who she later made the Earl of Leicester, is also well documented, in this novel, Weir delves into the emotional and physical bonds that both connect the pair and drive them apart. From the first days of Elizabeth’s rule to Dudley’s death, she fictively explores their tempestuous and imbalanced relationship.
Yet, for all the veracity of this book and the fine writing, the weaving of fact and fiction, the hardest thing for the reader is the undeniable reality that the lead character, good Queen Bess, is an outright bitch. She is not sympathetic or kind, but narcissistic, wilful, a bully, and manipulative. She uses people for her own ends, is masterful with words and wields them as weapons to wound and control and contrive outcomes she desires. Though this may have been politic and Elizabeth’s only means of asserting authority and influence, it works better in non-fiction than fiction where what’s being told is essentially both a love story and an anti-love story. Likewise, Dudley is a dud who obeys his monarch at the expense of dignity, self-respect and, in the end, his family. History is kinder to these pair than this book, that’s for certes!
So, while I enjoyed Weir’s version – and for me the second half of the book was better than the first – I prefer the way history books recall Elizabeth – as a potent political force, faults and all – than this particular piece of (romantic?) fiction.