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Lady in Waiting

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

The Lady Elizabeth

By Alison Weir
Ballantine Books, 2008
They captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will encompass their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the sixth installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.


Alison Weir is no stranger to the Tudors. In a career spanning twenty years, she’s written half a dozen histories of the dynasty, and she doesn’t lack for fans of her work. Her books possess a clear, extremely approachable style that gives even her most unprepared readers the confidence to wade into, for instance, the Wars of the Roses. There’s a real merit in that; some of Weir’s crustier colleagues might condemn her as a ‘popular historian,’ but the truth is she’s a very popular popular historian who’s done more to expand the general public’s knowledge of the Tudor era than all of her crustier colleagues combined.

She might have gone on writing such histories for the rest of her life, but in 2007 she left the field of Tudor history where so many have labored and entered the field of Tudor fiction, where so many, many more have miscarried. And interestingly, the result, a sympathetic novel about the twelve-day-queen Jane Gray called Innocent Traitor, was if anything more involving than any of her histories. Despite the formidable bibliographical armament of her histories, Weir has always been a visual, even an impressionistic writer. It’s what gives her histories the immediacy that has delighted her legion of readers, but it’s a quality she’s always needed to restrain, antithetical as it is to the sober historian’s art. In this new venture, historical fiction, she can give it free rein and see where it leads.

In Innocent Traitor, it leads her to, of all things, a triumph: although it takes an unwarrantedly favorable review of its subject (a note to Weir from a student of the Tudors perhaps older than she: except for small little children forced blinking into an uncomprehended spotlight, nobody innocent ever got their bum on the throne of any nation), the book is an unquestionable success, perhaps a stronger and certainly a surer book than any Weir had yet written. In it, the Tudors come alive and speak in their own voices, and what’s more, what couldn’t be accomplished in a history, they speak and hope and dream in words on the page.

Weir’s new book, The Lady Elizabeth, is also a novel. Its subject matter is Elizabeth’s life from the time of her earliest memories (whenever that may be; reputable Tudor historians have solidly maintained she could not have remembered her mother; Weir chooses to come down on the side of the aforementioned freakish Tudor brain and maintain that Elizabeth remembered everything, and really, who’s to say she isn’t right?) to the moment she comes to the throne, and this is a fractured field for any historian to assay, studded as it is with steep impossibilities

For the chief miracle of Elizabeth’s reign is that it happened at all. When she was just three, her mother Anne Boleyn was officially declared a witch and a traitor, sentenced to beheading in the Tower yard, her one and only progeny forever blacklisted. While she was still a small child, unable to do anything or say anything in her own defense, she was declared a bastard by her own father the king to smooth the way for the offspring of a different queen. Her path should have been short. Her fate should have been merciless.

When you look at what England’s first Queen Elizabeth had to face in her life, had to face in order to live her life, your faith in luck is reborn. All the men, all the soldiers and courtiers and poets and place-seekers, all the women, all the ambitious wives and rival great noblewomen and gimlet-eyed ladies in waiting, indeed all living men and women in the end failed her prodigious health and freakishly vital longevity. Every mortal thing eventually deserted her in her almost supernatural permanence – but one immortal thing never did: luck. In an island nation’s roster of kings and queens consecrated on the altar of luck, hers was by a wide margin the greatest of them all.

The ineluctable reach of that luck extended not only forward through her life but backwards as well. Just look at all the people whose shades gather to the blooded sword, all these people, any one of whom could have stopped this weedy Elizabeth from ever becoming Gloriana: there’s first of all whey-faced young stripling Arthur, Henry VII’s surviving firstborn son, elder brother to Henry VIII, an amiable but fey young lad who, if he’d successfully mated with Catherine of Aragon, his contracted bride (daughter of the greatest of all Spanish and Castilan princes, Ferdinand and Isabella), would have ushered in an era of international amity the like of which the world had never seen, in which the earth-straddling Spanish empire joined forces with England, the growing financial powerhouse of the West. The forces of worldwide Catholicism (and, incidentally, worldwide Catholic reform, a thing every intelligent believer had been wanting for three or four generations without centuries of bloodshed, censoring men’s thoughts, and five hundred years of a bloodily divided Ireland) would have been immeasurably strengthened by such a union, and it’s possible that would have changed the course of all European history. It would certainly have changed the fate of any daughter born to Prince Henry. She would have become just another royal bartering-chip, placed in as diplomatically advantageous a marriage as possible. She might have been some king’s wife, but she would never have been queen.

Arthur died unexpectedly, and after some dickering on the part of Henry VII (not to mention placating the Pope and the Church), young Henry stepped into Arthur’s matrimonial place and took Catherine for his wife. And there come more ghosts, little ones this time, hovering to impede the yet-unborn Elizabeth: Three times, Catherine dutifully conceived, and all three of these babies (two of them boys) were either stillborn or died immediately. Two further times, a boy and a girl, the babies lived only a few weeks. True, the Princess Mary lived, but if any of those little boys had, Henry would in all likelihood have stayed with Catherine to the end of his days, content to keep his philandering out of the public eye. He might have provided for a daughter sprung from such philandering, but she would have been content to be Lady Elizabeth (about whom rumors swirled) and nothing more.

But the boys all died, and Henry divorced his wife and got Anne Boleyn with child and married her and made her his queen, and whatever his other reasons might have been for doing any of those things, his main reason was to get a male heir to the throne. Queen Anne promised him one, and then Elizabeth was born. Henry’s disappointment was overwhelming, but his wrath was not yet kindled; had Anne produced a son next (she was pregnant again virtually the instant she recovered from childbirth), a healthy second-born son, then once again the Elizabeth we know would never have existed. And that desperately precious boy did indeed arrive, dead at birth.

Henry felt his time was running out; that miscarriage was the end of Anne, and the end, as we’ve seen in earlier chapters, wasn’t pretty. It’s likely Anne reacted to Henry’s infidelities with indiscretions of her own (her many enemies at Court might exaggerate her perfidy, but it’s unlikely they manufactured it wholesale, knowing the awe-inspiring way Henry reacted to being lied to), but she could never have been quietly rusticated to some out-of-the-way country house; too many dark and epic things had been undertaken in her name.

In any case, her death removed the bulwark of little Elizabeth’s protection. The Imperial and Spanish factions that favored the Princess Mary stared with hard resolve at this rival claimant to the King’s affection, and that King’s desire for a male heir was sharper than ever.

Then came mousey little Jane Seymour, the wife who actually managed to give Henry the boy he wanted, young Edward. This boy grew to young manhood and should have utterly blasted any chance of Elizabeth being anything more than a high-born Court lady herself, an extra princess, and one with the ordure of her mother’s death on her. He should have been the future: Prince, then King Edward VI: Elizabeth’s equal intellectually, Mary’s equal idealistically, and Henry’s son by virtue of his explosive temper and genuine zest for living.

But he didn’t live, and suddenly the gravest threat to Elizabeth’s future, to the future we all know for her, was her own sister. We’ll get to Mary in this series, but for now you only need to know that she took after her grandfather Henry VII (we’ll get to him too) more than any of her siblings: she had all the prodigious Tudor intelligence – Latin by five, Greek by six, and all that – and she also had the particularly Tudor capacity for looking directly into the heart of things, or issues, or people (that she was also physically courageous goes almost without saying, since all the Tudors were; in 1554, a rebellion by Thomas Wyatt failed to unseat Mary pretty much solely because she magnificently refused to let it, for instance)(it bears remembering that Henry VII was a battlefield king, somebody who seized the crown by force of arms). But Mary took after her grandfather in that the twistings of her thoughts sometimes worked to her own disadvantage – that, and that she had no talent for happiness.

Mary possessed another quality, one her various half-siblings didn’t have: foreign blood, and foreign upbringing. Mary imbibed the worldview of her mother Catherine of Aragon; she was a self-designated stranger to the quality of hard-won realpolitik that the rest of the Tudors embraced without thinking about it. Once her mind was made up, she refused to see anything that conflicted with it. In other words, she was a fool – the only one among her kind, for all their faults, to warrant that description.

She took a Spanish marriage – to Prince Philip – though her people hated it. She burnt persistent Protestant martyrs, many, many martyrs (hence her immortal nickname in history, ‘Bloody Mary’), though her people hated it. She kept on with her dismissive, occasionally insulting treatment of Elizabeth, though her people (and even most of her Catholic clerics) hated it. And she refused to acknowledge Elizabeth as her successor, even though English statute and the love of the people demanded it. She believed there were plots all around her, and she balanced this, pathetically, heartbreakingly, by believing she was pregnant even though she was not.

The problem for Elizabethan biographers – and the problem for Alison Weir as a Tudor novelist – is that there were plots against Mary, and they centered on Elizabeth, and honestly, how could that not have been the case? Elizabeth was young and comely, the great Henry’s daughter, and reassuringly Protestant (her half-hearted gestures at learning Mary’s Catholicism hadn’t been believed by the common folk any more than they were by Mary herself, nor did Elizabeth intend them to be) – naturally she was the focus of plots dreamt up by French or Imperial interests, by the merely opportunistic, and by all those who wanted the burning of suspected heretics stopped or even slowed.

It is, on the flat anvil of sheer believability, utterly impossible that Elizabeth did not know of these plots. Glancing at that capacious brain of hers, we may say one thing with certainty: everything we know of her in our day, she knew in her own, and likely much, much more. And can we really be sure, at this great remove, that she never once grew impatient? What if Mary had lived for ten more years, or twenty? Married to a Spanish prince and forever tightening the grip of her fanatical Catholicism on a bankrupt country that didn’t want it?

Weir likes her present subject, as she did her previous one, Lady Jane Grey, who she likewise fictively exonerates from the not exactly unheard-of desire to be Queen of England. In doing this, Weir has, perhaps, done her bit to add names to the roster of history’s (and historical fiction’s) reluctant heroines. But as an unavoidable side-effect, she’s inadvertently diminished the roster of those gamely gals who forever kept their eyes on the main chance. Steadfastly maintaining Elizabeth’s total innocence (or for that matter Jane Grey’s) does her less justice than Weir may perhaps think. The lady need not have been innocent to be right.

The Lady Elizabeth is a fluid, charming book, well worth the reading by anybody interested in Tudor history or possessing a sweet-tooth for Tudor fiction. It opts for a graceful, slightly formal phraseology over the heavy, put-upon antiquities of much period fiction, and it sinks you into the time (which is, after all, the final demand we all make from any historical fiction). As successful a popular historian as Weir has been, she bids fair to be an even greater success in her new genre, where she’s at last free to give full reign to the feeling she’s always displayed for her illustrious subjects.

That feeling is, in fact, the only problem with the book. In Weir’s view, Elizabeth must be forever innocent, and this (far more than her innovation of a miscarriage and the ultimate refutation of the sobriquet ‘Virgin Queen,’ the book’s nominal bombshell) sets the verisimilitude of her book off-kilter, because her Lady Elizabeth is constantly aghast, constantly bursting into tears and nearly fainting, and worst of all, constantly surprised by the events unfolding around her, whereas the real one, as Weir knows better than anybody, was scarcely ever any of those things, for the simple reason that she couldn’t afford to be. In real life, Elizabeth couldn’t afford to be innocent.

A couple of examples will suffice, especially since Weir’s novel is so good no serious harm need be imputed to it. Take, for instance, Wyatt’s rebellion itself: this was no half-hearted, unplanned uprising – four counties were meant to be involved in simultaneous action, and Wyatt himself led thousands of armed men into London. He’d written many times to the Lady Elizabeth, although she later denied ever having read such letters, much less responded to them. One of his letters had proposed she be removed to Donnington Castle in Berkshire, which was better fortified to withstand a siege from London, if it came to that. The Lady Elizabeth, under examination after Wyatt’s defeat and capture, swore never to have received such letters nor responded to them, which is, of course, what anyone but an idiot would have sworn. But thousands of men don’t arm themselves and march on London at the behest of a Thomas Wyatt – and Sir James Croft, who was active in the rebellion, was often in Elizabeth’s service.

Weir in her novel would have it that Elizabeth is as innocent of all this as the lady herself maintained before her sister’s ministers – Elizabeth knows Wyatt only as the son of the man who wrote love poems to her mother. But in truth, Mary had every right to be suspicious; she had enough experience with the concept of deniability to smell it when it was right in front of her. Wyatt was kept alive for weeks (even Elizabethan chroniclers were a little in awe of the tortures meted out to Croft), but in the end nothing could be proven against such a popular royal figure. The canny politics involved in all of this are absent from Weir’s novel, which is to its misfortune.

Or take the plot that was hatched in 1555, when a cache of anti-Catholic documents was uncovered in London and the investigation (in Elizabethan times, as in so many other times, including our own, this word always means torture) eventually linked them to Elizabeth’s guardian Kate Ashley. Weir dutifully dramatizes this incident, but here’s her fictive conclusion:

The papers, it seemed, were merely a pretext. As far as Kat could tell, there was nothing in them to incriminate herself or anyone else.

In Weir’s novel, that’s the last we hear of those papers, and that’s as close as they ever come to touching Elizabeth. In reality, the papers (some of them exceedingly scurrilous, and many of them undoubtedly treasonous in the eyes of the country’s devoutly Catholic queen) were discovered not just at Somerset House (which was the Lady Elizabeth’s London residence) but carefully secreted away there. They were no pretext; men had been burned for possessing less. Weir dismisses the import of the incident because she has to, in order to preserve the moral chastity of her main character. But the effort carries a price: it simplifies some of the most complicated women and monarchs England ever produced.

Still, these are minor points over which only specialists will quibble. In the main, The Lady Elizabeth is full of charms. One senses the release with which Weir finally gives flesh to scenes both large and small whose reality she could only sketch as an historian. Some of these scenes are touchingly simple, as when royal father and daughter share an extremely rare private moment:

“What’s that, sir?” Elizabeth asked. The smell was mouthwatering.

“Have you never had aleberry, Bessy?” the King asked, extending the spoon. “It’s a bread pudding of sorts, with fruit. Try some, here.”

“It’s delicious,” his daughter said, thrilled to be sharing food in such a homely fashion with her father, who usually ate with great ceremony.

“Have another spoonful,” the King offered.

Or when Elizabeth hears news of other notable Tudor figures, almost always through the gossip of her attendant women:

The Lady Rochford had gone mad under questioning, and so the King had to pass a special Act of Parliament allowing him to execute lunatics. But they say she was sane enough when she went to the scaffold. I say she got what she richly deserved for having borne false witness against her poor husband and your mother.

Or even when Weir is indulging in one of the book’s rare moments of levity, in this case when the captive Princess Elizabeth is confronting her conscientious though unimaginative jailor Sir Henry Bedingfield:

“I want some of my books,” she said. “Cicero, my English Bible, and my Latin Psalms.”

Sir Henry looked alarmed, wondering what pernicious influences such books might contain. He supposed that the Psalms were all right, but he knew nothing of Cicero, whoever he may be, and as for an English Bible…

There are charming set pieces in which the child Elizabeth is seen playing with her brother Edward, before the awful responsibilities of the crown descended on him; there are tantalizingly early hints of the romantic fascination Elizabeth would feel for Robert Dudley; and there is, at one point, a simple and unnervingly convincing declaration of what might very well have been the heart of Elizabeth’s decision to become and remain that most amazing of things, a single female ruler:

For in the course of her long seclusion, she had discovered that the most important thing to her in life was freedom: the freedom to come and go as she pleased, to make her own choices, and not constantly to have to submit to the will of others. Such freedoms did not come with marriage – indeed, any close entanglements with the opposite sex. Better by far to be satisfied with the sweet, heady pleasures of flirtation and courtship than to commit herself further to any man. What she loved was being admired, being wanted, being pursued – but she did not think she wanted ever to be caught.

Even with the Tudors, even with so quintessentially Tudor a monarch as she, it might, ultimately, have been as simple as that.

The book isn’t free of flaws, apart from Weir’s unwillingness to sully her heroine’s good name. All throughout the text, there are distractingly numerous repetitions, infelicitous echoes (‘flounced,’ ‘barked,’ ‘jested,’ etc), unwanted paddings. In her extensive acknowledgements, Weir mentions her line-editor Kirsty Crawford, so in this case, unlike in the case of the Lady Elizabeth, we have a clear and unmistakable culprit. But these are easily fixable things, something even the first U.S. paperback edition can correct. The worth of the book is hardly touched by them.

That worth is great indeed. The Virgin Queen had swords, guns, and armadas raised against her in her long reign, and she survived them all. But before she did any of those things, she had to thread her way through a snakepit of internecine maneuverings, dynastic labyrinths, and the unpredictable lunges of religious zealotry. The Lady Elizabeth is the novel of those so dangerous years, and it’s the author’s best work to date, fiction or non. As the very latest example of Tudor fiction, it’s well worth your time.

The book is the very smallest tip of the iceberg that is the field of Tudor fiction. The list of this particularly fervid field of historical fiction seems endless, but readers of this series need have no fear! In our next chapter, I’ll wade into that endless sea, test the waters, and tell you all about it.

Steve Donoghue worked as a city prosecutor in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s and was furiously gathering evidence against the Chicago Outfit when Al Capone was jailed on charges of tax evasion. His white whale imprisoned, Donoghue lost his lust for the work and turned to writing; today he hosts the literary blog Stevereads