Sunday, January 3, 2010

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin

Originally published in 1944, Young Bess tells the story of the girlhood of the future Queen Elizabeth I with the primary focus on her dangerous infatuation with her stepfather the dashing Thomas Seymour.

The novel does a marvelous job of painting the perils Elizabeth faced growing up, the stigma of being Anne Boleyn's daughter and declared illegitimate by her cantankerous father, Henry VIII, her relationships with her siblings the overdressed old maid Catholic zealot Mary, and the emotionally frigid Edward VI, and the frequently changing stepmothers that passed through their lives until kind, nurturing Catherine Parr came along like an answer to a prayer.

After the death of King Henry, Elizabeth is sent to live with her stepmother Catherine Parr, who scandalizes many with her hasty remarriage to that handsome rascal Tom Seymour. At first it seems the perfect, safe haven for Elizabeth, a loving home with a caring stepmother, a fun-loving stepfather, her admiring tutor, Roger Ascham, and scholarly little cousin Lady Jane Grey, but Tom Seymour's attentions to the young girl are far from fatherly. He begins to come into her bedroom early in the morning to tickle her awake and chase her about, and at one point he even cuts off her dress in the garden because he finds the solemn black an unsuitable choice.

Elizabeth finds herself falling in love with a man she knows she shouldn't love and grappling with the intoxicating feeling of power she feels commingling with her emerging sexuality. Anne Boleyn was said to have possessed the power to "drive men mad" and apparently her daughter has inherited this quality. Elizabeth experiments with her new-found power over men by enjoying a brief but chaste flirtation with her brother Edward's whipping boy, Barnaby Fitzpatrick.

When Catherine Parr, thirty-five and pregnant for the first time, compares herself with Elizabeth and finds herself wanting compared to this young girl in the first flush of womanhood, likening her to "the sharp sweet flavour of a not quite ripe apple," she sends Elizabeth away for her own good. Already rumours are swirling about Elizabeth and Seymour and these are not good for any young girl's reputation, especially a royal princess who might be Queen of England someday.

After Catherine Parr dies of childbed fever, Tom Seymour's unwise ambitions to win a crown for himself through marriage to a princess (he is willing to take either Elizabeth or Mary or even Lady Jane Grey) and manipulation of the boy-king Edward, lead him to the scaffold and turn the spotlight of suspicion on Elizabeth.

While mourning her first love and forcing herself to mask her emotions for her own good, Elizabeth finds herself separated from her beloved governess, Mistress Ashley, and her steward, Mr. Parry, while they undergo interrogation in the Tower of London, and surrounded by spies and enemies determined to trip her up and extract a confession from her. Elizabeth engages in a battle of wits and wills with Sir Robert Tyrwhitt and it takes all her wits and cunning to save herself. At the age of only 19, as she fights for her honor and good name, Elizabeth learns a hard but vital lesson, that the only person she can truly trust and depend on is herself.

Though some might find the style somewhat old-fashioned and quaint, with its absence of sex scenes and explicit language, "Young Bess" provided many girls with their first introduction to Elizabeth I and Tudor England, and some of those girls grew up to be mothers who in turn recommended the book to their daughters, thus allowing the book to continue its tradition of good and loyal service to history, instilling fond memories in the minds and hearts of women, and promoting Elizabeth I as a worthy role model. "Young Bess" was also made into a film starring Stewart Granger as Tom Seymour, Deborah Kerr as Catherine Parr, and Jean Simmons in the title role as Young Bess.

Margaret Irwin followed "Young Bess" with two sequels, "Elizabeth, Captive Princess," and "Elizabeth and The Prince of Spain," which I will also be reviewing.

The complete trilogy is also available in one volume, but a word of warning, if you have small hands you might find it a hard-to-hold-onto handful. I bought the single volume edition for cost and convenience, but ended up wishing I had bought the smaller, more comfortable to hold, individual volumes instead.

See the movie starring Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger, unfortunately not available on DVD yet, only VHS

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