Monday, February 1, 2010

The Lady Elizabeth

We know how it ends.  Elizabeth R, Gloriana, the Virgin Queen ascended to the throne of a tiny, near-bankrupt island nation set it on the path to empire and cultural domination.  Alison Weir's The Lady Elizabeth tells us how it began, with a startlingly intelligent little girl, who before her third birthday asked why she was no longer Lady Princess, but merely Lady Elizabeth.  The reason, of course, is that her father has declared her illegitimate after executing her mother on trumped-up charges of adultery and is once again in search of a wife and an heir, leaving Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary in limbo.   

The Lady Elizabeth is a novel, so Weir can play a little bit with the historical record.  We know the basic facts - Elizabeth was a brilliant scholar but a bit of a little girl lost who never really experienced family life until Katherine Parr married Henry VIII.  She remained Elizabeth's guardian after the king died, and seemed to tolerate her fourth husband's early-morning visits to Elizabeth's room.  Thomas Seymour's physical improprieties with Elizabeth are part of the historical record (and historical rumor), and the scenes are a bit uncomfortable to read.  At 14, Elizabeth was old enough to marry - in fact, Seymour had tried to marry her - and found the Admiral attractive at first, but we're still reading about a teenager being molested by her step-father, with the apparent tacit approval of the only mother she's ever known.  Maybe Weir could have skipped this episode, but instead she uses it as Elizabeth's introduction to the treachery of courtiers.  It's a lesson she needs, because her youth will be spent dealing with shifting political and religious alliances.  Elizabeth survives the proto-Puritan reign of her brother, and the Inquisition-tinged reign of her sister because she's smart and savvy enough to stay out of the political intrigues which might land her on the throne - or the scaffold.  True, she has some brilliant advisors like William Cecil, but she's also poorly served by other alleged protectors like her governess/companion Kat Astley who encourages Seymour's attentions to her charge until long after they've gotten out of hand.

Religion plays a major part in the novel, as it did in the Tudor Era.  Although Henry VIII broke from Rome and is the founder of the Anglican Church, he died as a Catholic, just not one who followed the Pope and who nearly brought heresy charges against the secretly Protestant Katherine Parr.  Elizabeth, too, is a Protestant, and often portrayed herself as a modest Protestant maiden, albeit one who seems to be a forerunner of the Sexy Librarian ("Why, Lady Elizabeth, you're beautiful!").  Unlike her siblings, the fanatically Protestant Edward VI and the equally ultra-orthodox Catholic Mary I, she takes a more nuanced view of faith, believing it to be more of a private matter.  

I agree with Elizabeth, but wonder how much of her half-siblings' fanaticism is natural and how much grew from their circumstances.  Edward VI became king at age 9 and while intelligent, was a sheltered, naive boy ripe for manipulation by Protestant courtiers who wanted to scrub the Anglican Church of its Catholic roots.  He outlawed Catholicism and made the Pope a favorite villain, then died at age 16.  Mary, who first found solace in her faith allowed that faith to grow into an intolerant ultra-orthodoxy during the decades in which she was a political impediment to her father and thwarted in her desire for marriage and children.  After ascending to the throne, she married a man as intolerant as she who argued for her sister's execution, and embarked on the persecution of those who would not embrace the True Faith.  Both monarchs encouraged evil in the pursuit of religion, and I give Weir some credit for showing Edward as weak and Mary as desperate rather than as merely despotic bigots. 

This is Weir's second novel, and I enjoyed it more than her first.  Innocent Traitor was good, but the dogmatic, slightly priggish Lady Jane Grey isn't as interesting of a character as the brilliant and vivacious Elizabeth.  Weir also stays with Elizabeth's point of view, which gives the book a more unified feel than the shifting narration of Innocent Traitor.  She has since returned to biography, including a recently published book on Anne Boleyn's final days, but I hope she returns to fiction, perhaps with a novel about Mary or a humanization of Edward.

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