***Note: This review assumes that you've read the book.***
(I know it seems unnecessary to warn you about spoilers--how can they exist in a story about the life of Elizabeth I, a well-documented royal?--but in fact, the book deviates from history.)
One-sentence summary: this not-so-beautifully-written book should nevertheless be required reading for high school political science classes, if only to show why hereditary monarchy is a disastrous governmental system, and (with a few exceptions) doomed to put dolts in charge.
Dear Reflections: I read this book because of your excellent review of The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. It made me want to try one of Ms. Weir's books. Unfortunately, The Marriage Game is only available as a physical book, and I had space in my reading schedule for an audiobook, so I chose The Lady Elizabeth instead. I'm glad I listened to it, but I can't admit to being a Weir fan...yet.
Any work of historical fiction is something of a triumph. Let me start by saying that I admire this book, in the sense that I admire any attempt to capture a swath of important history in an engaging, fictional format. It's not easy, and Ms. Weir does a respectable job of research.
But Wolf Hall this book is not. Where Hilary Mantel completely immersed us in the politics and multiple interpersonal relationships of the time, and truly inhabited Thomas Cromwell (her own version of him, but a thoroughly fleshed-out version nonetheless), Ms. Weir avoids telling us about essentially anything outside of Elizabeth's home life or the politics of succession, and has created a bright but, I found, distant protagonist. Elizabeth was brilliant as a child, and quite educated, but we get no sense of her following the political crises of the time, and of her forming her own opinion about global affairs.
To hear this book tell it, women--even important women--spend all their time hoping for masques, getting fitted for beautiful gowns, playing hide and seek in the garden, and eating cold chicken and wine. They spend a lot of time nervously clasping their hands over their stomachers and mopping up clots of blood during their monthly courses.
Ms. Weir does do a good job of showing Elizabeth's growing attachment to the idea of being queen, as it becomes clearer that it could happen, but other than her private religious leanings (how they are feared by some and celebrated by others, and the stirrings of her eventual moderate policies concerning religion from observing her brother, Edward's, and her sister, Mary's, intolerance), we have no sense of her sense of geopolitics. Instead, an interminable amount of time is spent watching an invented pregnancy, which has the effect of keeping the reader far away from any real goings-on in England. There is the occasional mention of how Cicero is Elizabeth's favorite ancient author, and her tutors marvel at her understanding of the old Greek and Roman political philosophies, but it's lip service. We never see her forming opinions on current events--unless the current event has to do with Thomas Seymour's dark good looks or Mary Tudor's false pregnancy.
To be fair to Ms. Weir, even books about Henry VIII are obsessed with personal issues--his inability to produce an male heir, and his six wives--rather than the real politics of the time (the conflict with Spain, Rome, and the Emperor Charles V). While you can argue that these "personal" problems are political because they impact succession issues and government stability, I just hoped for a more in-depth view of an educated woman taking power against all odds.
This book makes you want to scream, "See? This is why we can't have monarchies as institutions!" Any human being who grows up spoiled and sheltered in a court has no idea what the real world is like; the children of even brilliant people are usually quite average; heredity is no guarantee of political acumen. If you grow up in the line of succession, you're most likely a very poor candidate to be actually in charge.
Did the editor tell Ms. Weir to make this book sensational? If so, that advice was a huge disservice to its value of it as a teaching document. The entire pregnancy story line undermines the strength of her protagonist's character, not to mention the real Elizabeth's actual strength. We see an infatuation with an older man, a flirtation getting wildly out of control, Catherine Parr's inability to rein her husband in, Elizabeth's mooning obsession, her innocent agreement to a sexual encounter, her subsequent rape (she wants to tell him no), her difficult pregnancy, and a traumatizing miscarriage. This, we're told, is why she swears off men: because she has experienced first-hand the pain of sex and childbearing. Yes, yes, she also remembers that her mother essentially went to the block because of sex and childbearing, and sees that her sister Mary loses political power to Philip of Spain by marrying. But those observations feel almost incidental to the visceral response we see Elizabeth have to the bodily harms of conceiving and delivering children--to the blood and pain. Inventing this lost baby as a formative experience for her diminishes the shrewd decision-making of the historical Elizabeth.
As a reader on goodreads puts it so well:
For me, the fascinating thing about Elizabeth I was her resolution to trust in her own judgement for the good of her people. This is remarkable. Where did she find the strength to resist all demands she marry? How did she come to this conclusion? What forces were at work in her psychologically? She not only claimed power, she wielded it masterfully. Weir gives us no psychological insight into how that woman developed and flowered at a time when everything was working against her.
In my opinion, the book that answers these excellent questions will be the book that delves into Elizabeth's education and intellect. Ms. Weir aptly shows Elizabeth's intellect in only one area: the cunning to stay alive, even through tight scrapes in which others think she is a either a real or symbolic threat to the throne.
Has any rape been more limply dealt with by an author? Throughout the rest of the novel, even after Thomas Seymour's plot to marry Elizabeth in order to become king is revealed, even years after his execution, Elizabeth still moons over him. She never once ruminates over his lack of tenderness or love when he impregnated her (well, she thinks about it once, but then waxes on about his charm); she never thinks privately of that forced act as a violation. I think Ms. Weir would argue that a sheltered, 16th-century girl couldn't understand such "feminist" issues, but I don't believe it. As a girl who has been raised to equate "virtue" with political value, and later, as a grown woman who understands sex, she would see it for what it was. Furthermore, was Elizabeth ever, ever likely to have been left on her own for one minute, except when she was actually urinating or defecating in one of Chelsea's privies? No. Kat would simply not have gone to chapel that morning, especially if Elizabeth was feeling poorly.
Historical inaccuracy: I was also disappointed by the other myths that are promoted in the book, many of which historians not longer subscribe to: that Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger on one hand; that Jane Grey was abused by her parents; that every woman we encounter tolerates sex without even an inkling that it can be pleasurable. But mostly I'm irritated that in this fake history, Kat is a gossipy, useless woman who lets her own crush on Thomas Seymour endanger her charge. The real Kat tutored Elizabeth in four languages, history, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. They were friends for life. Kat's uselessness is unfair, and only there out of expediency: to further the fake plot of Elizabeth's pregnancy.
The writing. I was disappointed that anything remotely political was "reported" to us via another character, in a vague passive tense, as if from a textbook.
Echoes of the public outcry against the burnings soon reached Woodstock. "The people are angry," Sir Henry said. "There have been widespread protests, and seditious writings against the Queen and the Council. Many offenders have been caught and put in the pillory." With the country in ferment, and increasing numbers being sent to the stake, news and rumors flew fast. There were terrible stories of the sufferings of protestant martyrs, for such they were now being called.
In sum: While I do think I got an accurate view of court life in the 16th-century--full of back-stabbing, and colossal wastes of time and tax money--I don't think I got inside Elizabeth herself with this novel. I was disappointed that Ms. Weir reached for a bodice-ripper plot point that even she admits in the author's note she doesn't believe, as a historian. I wanted to understand a growing brilliant mind, and the evolution of a political philosophy, wrapped up in the unlikely package of a very young woman--a young woman who eventually had the confidence and savvy to want to rule alone.