Book Review: The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

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 GaThe Marriage Gameme, 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.

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Book Review: The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

Having read Weir’s non-fiction, The Princes in the Tower, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I knew that this biography of Queen Elizabeth I would be worth investing in as well. It was much more than that. Impeccably researched and beautifully written, Weir’s work on arguably one of the most significant English historical figures is a tour de force. Commencing before Elizabeth’s birth in order to provide a familial, cultural, social and religious context for the monarch she was to become, Weir quickly establishes the fraught times into which the second daughter of Henry VIII was born.

The period leading up to Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne is well known: the decapitation of her mother, Anne Boleyn, for apparent treason when she was only three; her half-brother Edward VI becoming king at nine, dying at 15 and, in order to ensure England remain Protestant removing his sisters’, Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth from the succession in favour of his cousin Lady Jane Grey; Lady Jane’s ousting in favour of Mary after only nine days; England plunging into religious schism as Catholicism was restored and heretics burned, suspicion of heresy and treason falling upon young Elizabeth, who living with Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr had to endure the unwelcome (?) sexual attentions of her step-mother’s new husband Thomas Seymour, as well as having to hide her Protestant leanings from her older sister- and that’s just some of the events! Witness to so much turmoil, when Elizabeth finally took the throne at 25, in 1558, it’s no wonder that she took a more moderate line on religion, refusing ‘to open windows on men’s souls’ or that sheThe Life of Elizabeth I was reluctant to relinquish her unexpected but hard won autonomy and power to a husband.

After ‘Bloody Mary’s’ reign, Elizabeth was regarded by many as a saviour of the country, but her sex was always, even by those who respected her fierce intellect, ability with languages, and creativity (she was a gifted poet, musician and translator of the classics) struggled with her sex. Weir carefully explores the way Elizabeth kept both the Privy Council and the Commons dancing to her tune, enduring and appearing to consider their constant demand for her to find a husband and thus produce an heir while actually procrastinating continuously. Weir offers both psychological and practical reasons for Elizabeth’s ‘Virgin Queen’ status that are fascinating and plausible.

Virgin or not, ‘Gloriana’ enjoyed and encouraged the attentions of men and was a consummate flirt. Men were attracted to her power and, one imagines initially at least, her beauty. Robert Dudley, the Earl Of Leicester, his “stepson”, the Earl of Essex, Raleigh, Drake, foreign princes and dukes came into her orbit, but only a fortunate few were not destroyed by the encounter. Mercurial, demanding, vain, whip smart and with an enormous capacity to understand her people, proud, generous, haughty, Elizabeth was a handful. Prone to tears and tantrums, she also succumbed to flattery, particularly in her declining years.

Not all men fell for or pretended to yield for her charms (though none could deny her intelligence) and the queen, Weir makes clear, had a knack for surrounding herself with talented and loyal men such as William Cecil (Lord Burghley), his son, Robert, and Francis Walsingham. Women too, while not Elizabeth’s preferred company to keep, were among some of her closest and most beloved companions, such as Kat Ashby.

Earning the love of her people, the enmity of Catholic Europe, and the grudging admiration of her closest counselors, Elizabeth ruled England for decades, escaping assassination attempts, rebellions and Catholic uprisings, two papal bulls, never mind the Spanish Armada and countless attempts to marry her off. Weir not only gives us a fabulous portrait of the queen on the throne, but the woman beneath the white make-up, wigs and sumptuous gowns.

This is a marvellous biography that brings Elizabeth and the period to which she gave name to life. The problems – famine, greed, failed harvests, plague, disease, Catholicism – and the triumphs – the flourishing of the arts (theatre, writing, poetry, pamphlets, music, art) exploration, creativity, firmer establishment of the Protestant faith – with her unerring eye, gifted imagination and erudite mind. This is for lovers of history and those who enjoy a terrific read.

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Book Review: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

I am a huge fan of Alison Weir’s non-fiction so turned with great interest to this, her second work of fiction, and was not disappointed. When the story opens, the future Queen Elizabeth I is only three years old. Tall, slender, with the red hair that marked her as a Tudor, she was already showing signs of the intellect and perspicacity for which she would become renown. In this novel, Weir chooses to focus on Elizabeth’s early years and adolescence against the backdrop of her father’s tempestuous marriages, other relationships and struggles with the church and his nobles. All the characters familiar from history appear only, this time, the reader sees them mainly through Elizabeth’s eyes, thus painting them in a new and often fascinating light.
Though a strong young woman, it’s made clear that luck played a huge role in not only Elizabeth’s survival against all odds, but also her ascension to the throne. The manoeuvring and play for power of other families and individuals in the constant jostle for the throne of England and the spiritual welfare of its people is mind-boggling and when viewed through young eyes, takes on sinister implications – what some of the nobles will do for favour, power and the promise of more. Ripe for exploitation, the royal children are simple pawns in a never-ending game and it’s not until they learn this (some never do), that they are able to begin to steer their destiny. Of great interest is the way the relationship between Mary, Elizabeth and Edward is depicted – closer and more loving than is generally thought, laced with regret and sadness, it is the heart and soul of the novel in many ways – they spring literally from the same seed and yet are more rivals than siblings. Their burgeoning awareness and deliberate ignorance of this fact is delicately explored. Another surprise in the novel is the notion of Elizabeth’s “virgin queen” status which is given, as historians of the era do too, a different and very powerful meaning. Headstrong Elizabeth is revealed to be a young woman with a big heart as well, one that is poised for breaking.

This may be fiction, but it keeps close to the facts as they’re known, offering wonderful insights and imaginings into the female mind, the endless machinations behind the throne of England and the woman who became one of the greatest monarchs in British history. A terrific read.

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