Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

This wonderful, hard-to-put-down novel charts the life of Elizabeth Tudor from the death of her mother, Anne Boleyn, in 1536 to the day Elizabeth becomes Queen of England in 1558. Historian Alison Weir does a wonderful job of capturing the mind and voice of Henry VIII's clever red-haired daughter even when her head and body churn with confusion and contradictory desires and longings.

The primary focus of the story is Elizabeth's infatuation with her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, the handsome, virile husband of Catherine Parr, a colourful and hot-headed rascal suffering from the disease of soul-devouring ambition as he schemes to snare a royal bride and wrest the power of Tudor government away from his brother, the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour.

One controversial aspect of this novel is that Alison Weir, although as a historian she believes Elizabeth remained a virgin in the full physical sense her entire life, chose in the pages of her fiction to let Elizabeth succumb to Seymour and become pregnant as a result of their one and only sexual encounter. While some historical fiction fans have not liked this, I thought it was an excellent twist and very well done, seamlessly blending with an old tale from Tudor times about a midwife being taken blindfolded to attend the young Elizabeth in childbed.

The novel also vividly recreates the clash of wills between Mary and Elizabeth. As Mary's fanatical determination to restore England to the Catholic fold leads to the burning of Protestant "heretics" and turns England into a country fraught with fear, and her subjects' love for her dwindles and dies, Elizabeth becomes the people's beacon of hope, the woman who will lead the way to a more enlightened future. And Mary's fragile mind becomes increasingly suspicious of Elizabeth, seeing her as the figurehead of every Protestant plot, and placing Elizabeth in danger at the hands of the sister who once loved her as if she were her own child.

"The Lady Elizabeth" is a vivid portrait of the perils this courageous and clever young woman faced on the long, winding, and often rutted and bumpy road to the throne, with a stay in the Tower of London and many brushes with danger along the way.

I have read many novels about Elizabeth I over the years, but this one ranks alongside "Legacy" by Susan Kay as my favorite so far.

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