Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been immersing myself in the Tudors recently. In the past year or so, I’ve read three novels by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir’s Children of Henry VIII. My favorite piece of Tudor fiction is Alison Weir’s novel Innocent Traitor, which chronicles the life of Lady Jane Grey, so I was excited to read Weir’s second novel, The Lady Elizabeth, which tells the story of Elizabeth I’s early life, from her childhood to her becoming queen.
Weir has great source material to work with. Elizabeth’s early life is filled with tragedy, drama, and intrigue. In her first 25 years, she loses her mother, is declared a bastard, becomes the target of all sorts of rumors, is suspected of treason, and is imprisoned in the Tower of London. In choosing Elizabeth as her subject, Weir guarantees herself a good story.
As a novelist, Weir is able to explore the possible thoughts and feelings that led Elizabeth and her historical peers to behave as they did—something she’s not able to do as a historian without surrounding her speculations with dozens of caveats. In general, I found her explanations for peoples’ various actions to be believable, if not always rational.
Weir even manages to make one of the more outrageous departures from the generally accepted history believable when she suggests that when Elizabeth was a teenager she was impregnated by Thomas Seymour, then the husband of her stepmother Katherine Parr. There were rumors of an inappropriate relationship between them at the time, but historians agree that the relationship was not sexual, whatever Seymour’s intentions might have been. In her author’s note, Weir herself says she believes “that Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen she claimed to be.” Weir based this version of the story on the rumors, allowing herself as a novelist to “enjoy the heady freedom” to consider a possibility that, as a historian, she does not believe actually happened.
Although I think Weir does a good job fitting her audacious bit of historical revision into what we know of Elizabeth’s character and personality, I wish she had left the history the way it was. One of the things that annoys me about so much Tudor fiction is the obsession with the bedroom. (Philippa Gregory, I’m talking to you.) Elizabeth’s story doesn’t need sex to be spicy, and I think this book would have been better without it. You want to tell a story about a young princess who’s taken advantage of, hides her pregnancy, and is nearly condemned as a traitor because word gets out? Fine—that does sound like a good story, but I’d enjoy it more if the names were changed.