The Lady Elizabeth
© 2008 Alison Weir
“Can you do what you like when you are king? [Elizabeth] asked, a whole new vista of freedom opening up in her mind.
“Of course I can,” her father replied. “People have to do my will.” There was an edge to his voice that, young as she was, she missed.
“Then,” she told him, “I am going to be king when I grow up.” (p. 19)
I have long been taken with the personality of Elizabeth the First, the storied ‘Virgin Queen of England’ who ruled long and well, setting England’s course away from the Roman Church and continental wars, and towards Anglo-Scottish union and the New World. Alison Weir’s biography of Elizabeth came highly reccommended to me, but I do not have access to it: I do, however, have access to Weir’s biographical novel of Elizabeth. Weir’s account begins with the death of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, and the royal decree that Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary are cut off from the line of succession. Weir tells Elizabeth’s story beginning with this loss of favor, following the future queen’s trials and triumphs until she is at last crowned Queen at the age of twenty-five.
Elizabeth, for me, is an almost-larger-than-life character, and her depiction in this book pays homage to her irrepresible indivduality and strength of will. “Precocius” is nearly an understatement, for even as a toddler Elizabeth is startlingly bold and mature, sounding at times like an adult. This may be due to the inherent difficult of an adult rendering how a young child might think and speak, to the tendecy for royal children to be raised as adults in miniature, or to the fact that Weir’s sources — letters penned by the young Elizabeth and recollections of her by her guardians — depict a child with supreme self-collection.
Elizabeth’s earliest memories are the blizzard of new stepmothers, for her father would marry four more times in his life, having done so six times in all. Mary and Elizabeth are both bewildered by this quick succession, but their respective responses to their own mothers’ fates define their characters: while Mary is partially broken by the humiliation of her mother (Katherine of Aragon) and lives her life forever dependent on others and weeping for the loss of what she loves, Elizabeth is determined not to endure her mother’s fate. She develops inner strength, demanding independence and self-effected security for herself. The primary actor in Elizabeth’s life is Elizabeth. She steels herself with philosophy — being especially fond of Cicero — and meets challenges with bristling defiance.
Elizabeth will need that strength of character to withstand her adolescence: when the king dies, she and her siblings become the pawns of ambitious nobles who seek to increase their fortunes and influence England’s course during times of political and religious turmoil. Elizabeth must also resist the advances of lusty suitors, struggling against her body’s innate desire to propagate. She scorns marriage, for her father’s string of wives proved how little the status of wife is worth, and she distrusts the power her emotions have over her when encouraged. Early adulthood is no easier, as rebellions against the Sovereign ensnare Elizabeth and send her to the Tower of London, where she occupies the very apartments her mother occupied before her own beheading. Her path to the throne takes her through a vast minefield of religious, political, diplomatic, and personal problems.
Weir took me by surprise: although my interest in the subject character played a part, The Lady Elizabeth was for me a genuine page-turner. Although I kept putting it down in order to read another book, it continually appeared in my hands again. I’m always pleased when authors comment on their sources and discuss how they used (or took liberty with) them, and Weir is generous in providing disclosure. I look forward to reading more of her fiction and nonfiction and recommend this with ease.