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My Enemy, the Queen!

By (April 12, 2013) No Comment

my enemy the queenOur book today is the tense and yet lush Tudor novel My Enemy the Queen, which that champion quiller of historical romances, Victoria Holt, wrote in a free afternoon one day in 1978. ‘Victoria Holt’ was a pseudonym for an Englishwoman named Eleanor Hibbert, who was born in 1906, endured a brief, tedious interval learning how to walk, talk, and feed herself, and then spent the next 70 years (she died in 1993) writing novels in the way that other people exfoliate dead skin cells. We may never know how many books she wrote, nor how many pseudonyms she used to write them – “Victoria Holt” was one of her most famous, but then, so was “Jean Plaidy” and “Philippa Carr,” and there were at least half a dozen others, many of them containing little private jokes, each of them writing in a slightly but noticeably different register (as often happens with prolific writers who work under different names). She wrote in her lifetime more books than most people read in a lifetime, and that would ordinarily be astonishing achievement enough, but she went it one better: all her books are soundly good, and a dozen or so of them are considerably better than good.

My Enemy, The Queen is one of her best books. It’s the story of Lettice Knollys, who was the childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth and later became a lady-in-waiting when Elizabeth became queen. For decades she thus occupied that unenviable (and extremely rare) position, an old friend to a Tudor. She was tall and shapely and witty, and she enjoyed for a time great influence in Elizabeth’s court. She married Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and commanded money and property of her own when he died.

Then she made the colossal blunder of falling in love with another old friend (and long-time quasi-paramour) of Elizabeth’s, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. The two courted in secret, consummated in secret, and married in secret, and when Elizabeth inevitably found out, she was furious. She poured imprecations of violence on the couple’s heads and banished Lettice permanently from court.

Our author’s tireless historical research revealed to her that Lettice Knollys lived into her 90s, a ripe old age indeed in a time before medicine, and the winning idea of crafting a book as the reflections of Lettice looking back on her long life sprang naturally to mind. At one point an older and wiser Lettice warns her son “One does not consider personal affronts when dealing with monarchs,” but she’s not a good follower of her own rule and spends most of her book brooding on just such personal affronts – and not only those she received from Elizabeth. One of the book’s subdued triumphs is its chilling success in conveying how secondary Lettice’s marriage to Leicester would have been to him once he was intent on regaining and retaining the favor of the Queen. He had to be almost constantly in attendance on Elizabeth – and so, absent from Lettice herself. When he talks to her about Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute Mary Queen of Scots, he does so as one court ally to another, never dreaming his wife might resent him:

Leicester was impatient with her [the Queen], and I reminded him that not so long ago he had thought of making terms with the Queen of Scots when he thought there was a possibility of Elizabeth’s dying and her coming to the throne.

He looked at me in amazement. He could not understand  my lack of understanding of political expediency. Previously I should have been with him in what he suggested. Oh yes, indeed I was out of love.

“If she does not take care,” he cried vehemently, “there will be an attempt to rescue Mary and it may succeed.”

“You would not then be in an enviable position, my lord,” I commented wryly. “I believe Her Majesty of Scotland is very fond of lapdogs, lucy reads my enemy, the queenbut she likes to choose her own, and I am sure have no house room for those who once pleased the Queen of England.”

“What has happened to you, Lettice?” he asked, bewildered.

I retorted: “I have become a neglected wife.”

There are similarly good turns of scene all throughout the novel, and a great deal of the historical research is remarkably sound (our author provides her sources). It’s true that the narrative never soars, never really makes Lettice into a person, much less an old, bitter person, but re-reading it and being swept up again in the old familiar story, you can’t help but wonder if today’s new crop of Tudor novelists were swept up in these same pages, when they were young girls as thirsty and impressionable as sponges. That’s a debt-worthy service, if so – and that’s on top of the fact that the originator still makes fine afternoon’s reading.