Book Review: The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory

I havThe Virgin's Lover (The Tudor Court, #5)e to say, Philippa Gregory is such a reliable author. You always know that when you pick up one of her books, not only are you in for a good read, but one imbued with historical facts without overly didactic. So it is with the wonderfully titled, the oxymoronic, The Virgin’s Lover, essentially the tale of the relationship between Robert Dudley, the future Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth the First, the woman who would later be dubbed the “Virgin Queen.”

Set in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, when she was not only being pressured by her council and foreign powers to marry and thus secure an heir to the British throne, but was also the victim of plots to overthrow her and restore the Catholic faith (and a Catholic royal), it shows Elizabeth at her mercurial, cocky and overbearing best – at least on the surface. Confident in her youth, beauty and brains, she wields authority as though born to it, when in reality she was never intended to lead the country, let alone be a sole sovereign.

Gregory does not hesitate to expose Elizabeth’s awareness of this and thus her insecurities, and anyone raised on a diet of BBC miniseries of the Queen’s life or Cate Blanchett and other actors’ powerful portrayals (Helen Mirren’s is one of my favourites), might find reading of her indecision and constant need to reassure herself with her confidant Dudley, irksome and feel it rings false. Yet history indicates that the queen was notorious for changing her mind, seeking the advice of familiars and ignoring the counsel of those who might know best. Beset with nerves, prey to occasional bouts of hysteria, she presented a strong façade to the public. Unpredictable at best, difficult and demanding at worst, in Gregory’s interpretation, it seems no-one but Dudley could control or soothe her. Though, and this is something that drove me mad, Gregory has either read somewhere or decided to introduce in Elizabeth the habit of pushing her cuticles down as an indicator of a nervous disposition. There are far too many references to this – so much so, they detract from the story and jar whenever mentioned.

Gregory has also seen fit to take the rumours of a sexual liaison between the queen and Dudley to a logical conclusion and certainly, Dudley’s sexual power over Elizabeth does account for the authority he was able to throw about in her name and elsewhere.

Confident he would one day come to the throne, there was only one obstacle in Dudley’s way: his wife, Amy Robsart. An early marriage of convenience on his part and love on hers, the needy, clinging Amy who is abandoned for the queen, in Gregory’s book is finally given a voice.

Sometime plaintive, other times painful, it’s nonetheless fascinating to “hear” the thoughts and desires of Dudley’s wife, the “other woman” to Elizabeth, and be given an insight into her despair and the knowledge that she has lost not just her husband, but her love.  Forced to seek shelter from friends, a situation that became increasingly fraught as Dudley’s favour and chances at kingship grew, Amy cuts a pathetic and tragic figure. But, if you know the history you also know that there’s a sad and twisted sense in which she finally gets her revenge upon Dudley for his betryayal and Elizabeth for seeking love where it was already taken.

Gregory takes delicious liberties but without sacrificing veracity. A good read that certainly puts a strain on the idea of Elizabeth as a “Virgin Queen.”

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Book Review: Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman

This is a brave book. Brave because it dares to tackle one of the most popular subjects available to historians and try and breath new life or at least create a different context for understanding the remarkable, mercurial and difficult Elizabeth I, “Gloriana.”

The key to the book lies in the title – the ways in which female friendship, enemies and rivalry influenced Elizabeth’s personality, upbringing, loves, and ultimately her reign.

Commencing, as many histories of Elizabeth do, with her mother, Anne Boleyn, and father, Henry VIII’s relationship, Borman tries to explain how Elizabeth would have understood the mistakes and triumphs of Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queenthe significant women in her life, the manner in which they handled themselves, found a place in such a patriarchal society, and learned from that. Starting with Anne, who was executed when Elizabeth was so young, and examining how her mother would have been represented to and thus remembered by Elizabeth is apt. In her childhood and adolescence, Elizabeth’s fortunes were contingent on those of other women –  from her mother’s rise in her father’s court, to the overturning of the Catholic Church before she was even born, to her execution. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour and the birth of the royal prince and heir Edward, the quiet and dignified withdrawal of Anne of Cleaves after her father Henry VIII rejected her, Katherine Howard’s flightiness and deadly flirtatiousness, to the independence quiet Catherine Parr achieved as a widow would have all helped to shape the person young Elizabeth was to become.

Then there were her governesses and Ladies of the Bedchamber – many who stood by Elizabeth during the fraught times when her older half-sister, Mary, reigned (and Elizabeth stood accused of plotting against the throne and worse) and again, when her brother Edward became king. These women, such as Blanche Parry, Kat Ashley and many more besides took care of Elizabeth’s emotional and psychological needs as much as her physical ones, performing the role of mother, sister and family among others. Variously wise and silly, they steered Elizabeth through and sometimes into dangerous waters, but she never forgot their loyalty and trusted many of them implicitly, rewarding them and their families when she came to power. These were her “real” friends, one senses from Borman’s words, in ways that many other women were not. In fact, historian Alison Weir (who praises Borman’s scholarliness), in her biography of Elizabeth argues that the Queen saw most women as “threat”. Borman’s book would counter that claim as well as support it – Elizabeth either adored or loathed you – and not just women either.

Understanding the subservient role demanded by her sex, Elizabeth nonetheless tried to find ways to exert her authority once she came to the throne – sometimes that involved demeaning her own sex or highlighting her masculine qualities such as she did in her famous speeches – at Tilbury and, at the end of her reign, to parliament. As Borman writes, “Sixteenth-century society was shaped by the Church, which taught the misogynistic lessons of St Paul. Women were the authors of original sin; instruments of the devil. Their only hope for salvation was to accept the natural inferiority to men…” This was not to be disputed but taken as a fact that underpinned contemporary attitudes, including those towards Elizabeth for whom it was thought only a husband could provide the necessary qualities to govern England. Elizabeth’s elevation to the throne was regarded as simply the first stage in gaining England a male ruler  – this she would accomplish through an auspicious marriage which would later produce an heir.

The way Elizabeth staved off this compromising of her power is explored as well as some reasons for this proffered. Even the men who appreciated her intellect and cunning and were fiercely loyal to her such as William Cecil, Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil, were also frustrated by her “weak” womanliness, her prevaricating, overt favouritism of certain men; what was regarded as the “problem” of her sex, and urged her to wed and resolve the accession issue.

It wasn’t only the men of Elizabeth’s council and court such as William Cecil (later, Lord Burghley), who believed that a male ruler was essential, there were even those who sought to use Elizabeth as leverage for their own climb to power and take her as a bride such as Thomas Seymour (a scandal that nearly destroyed a teen Elizabeth and has given source to countless fictive (and factual) speculations about what really went on between them) and, later, Robert Dudley (the same can be said for his relationship with her – something the infamous Leycester’s Commonwealth – published in 1584 –  fuelled with its dreadful claims). For the first twenty years of her reign, Elizabeth appeared to taunt her Privy Council by considering very respectable offers (and some not so desirable) of marriage from foreign rulers (and even the local boy, Earl of Arran) before discarding them and remaining a spinster – the Virgin Queen, a title that, twenty years after she took the throne no-one dared dispute but instead, began to embrace. When it came to husbands, the error in judgement of other women around her (in this case, her sister “Bloody Mary” and her unhappy marriage to the despised Spanish and Catholic Philip and the problems that wrought for England as well as Mary Stuart’s poor choices of men), would have been apparent to her. Borman also speculates a fear of childbirth, though that’s to be understood in this period when mortality rates for mothers and infants were high.

Taking the reader through all the major stages of Elizabeth’s reign, focussing on politics, relationships, scandals, triumphs, dress and pageantry but explaining the importance of the latter to the maintenance of both a royal persona and a façade of control, Borman explores many of the queen’s intimate and not so close relationships, including the complex love/hate, friend/rival, threat/promise of Mary, Queen of Scots, Bess Hardwick, the Greys, the Knollys, making it clear that though Elizabeth was whip-smart and a politician par excellence, she was also capable of great loyalty, jealousy, pettiness and cruelty when it came to women – events surrounding her upbringing could not have her any other way.

What was also interesting in terms of modern concerns was Elizabeth’s paranoia around ageing and her attempts to conceal what’s a fact of life from her courtiers and foreign dignitaries – with the exception of the women of her chamber. Wigs, heavy make-up and a rigorous exercise regime were upheld almost to the last, even when small-mindedness and in-fighting was rife throughout the court in the last couple of years of Elizabeth’s rule. Determined to demonstrate her capabilities, Elizabeth appeared to understand that for a female particularly, appearances counted as much as performance (plus ca change!). While a woman was not to be trusted and was seen as inconvenient and incapable, an old woman was worse. In the end, age was a great foe that not even Elizabeth could defeat.

An interesting book that is very easy to read and highly accessible – even for those who do not know too much about Elizabeth’s reign – though a basic if not sound knowledge does enrich the book and allows the reader to critique some of the claims – which is always a fascinating exercise. It’s terrific to be offered challenges to “facts” and think about what might have been and different ways about what was. Thoroughly enjoyed this as a welcome addition to the Elizabeth canon.

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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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