In this "memoir" by Elizabeth I, legendary historical novelist Jean Plaidy reveals the Virgin Queen as she truly was: the bewildered, motherless child of an all-powerful father; a captive in the Tower of London; a shrewd politician; a lover of the arts; and eventually, an icon of an era. It is the story of her improbable rise to power and the great triumphs of her reign--the end of religious bloodshed, the settling of the New World, the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Brilliantly clever, a scholar with a ready wit, she was also vain, bold, and unpredictable, a queen who commanded--and won--absolute loyalty from those around her. But in these pages, in her own voice, Elizabeth also recounts the emotional turmoil of her life: the loneliness of power; the heartbreak of her lifelong love affair with Robert Dudley, whom she could never marry; and the terrible guilt of ordering the execution of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. In this unforgettable novel, Elizabeth emerges as one of the most fascinating and controversial women in history, and as England’s greatest monarch.
When I was invited to write a review about a book by Jane Plaidy, I readily accepted. I had heard so much about the author but never really had the chance to read any of her works. Queen of this Realm seemed like a good choice for this first experience, since the charismatic Elizabeth I, queen of England is one of my favorite historic figures.
The book opens with Elizabeth’s troubled childhood. Daughter of the all powerful Henri VIII and the attractive Anne Boleyn, who was executed when Elizabeth was only 3 years old, we sense how this child grew insecure of her place into her father affections and how deeply she was scarred by her mother’s destiny and her illegitimacy. Raised by governesses, servants and stepmothers (like Katherine Parr), we follow her life through the years, watching her slowly becoming the woman who gave her name to her time - the Elizabethan era.
The struggle between Protestants and Catholics create an unstable situation in England aggravated by Edward VI’s death and Mary’s ascension to the throne. These were hard times for the future queen who had to spend a year in prison after being accused several times of plotting against her sister’s life.
After Mary’s early death, she finally accedes to the throne, to the joy of the English people who were much in love for their princess. As a young queen (barely 25 years old), many were those who wanted to see her settle down and giving an heir to the country. Elizabeth decides to do exactly the opposite; she will be married to her people and will rule without a man by her side. Of course, this didn’t stop her to have several suitors over the years, mainly due to diplomatic reasons.
The later years come in a rush with the victory over the Invincible Armada, the sudden death of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester or even the queen’s tempestuous relationship with the deeply annoying Robert Deveraux, the stepson of Dudley.
I have to confess I was not expecting much from this book in terms of historical accuracy, since I heard the author is known to sometimes romanticize History. For what I previously read about Elizabeth I, these 400 pages are a fair account of her life, which is not an easy task to do in such a short length or even write as a memoir. Of course, several important moments are rushed in a few lines, it was almost expected. I’m nonetheless impressed that Plaidy still managed to pull it off so elegantly. Now I wish I had her entire backlist at home…
I particularly enjoyed reading about the queen’s relationship with Robert Dudley, how they met as children in court, found themselves imprisoned at the same time at the Tower and later built a very complex relationship that resisted during 30 years to everything and everyone: treasons, cheating, disputes, banishments… I was never very fond of Robert, I can actually understand Elizabeth’s fascination for him, but he really never wins my affections.
My favorite moments were mostly the portraits of some of Elizabeth’s pairs or close family, like Jane Grey, so insecure and innocent and clearly a puppet in the hands of the ambitious John Dudley. The poor child looks just like a little lamb sent to the slaughter…
The fatherly figure of Lord Cecil who always admired his young queen and wanted the best for her, even if she sometimes strongly disagreed with his opinions, is very touching. He is always there for her, no matter what. I confess the scene when he gets ill and is lying in his bed talking with Elizabeth brought some tears to my eyes.
In the other hand, I missed to read more about Walsingham. He always fascinated me and I was quite disappointed to see that if he is mentioned here and there, we don’t know much about him or even quite see how crucial his role was during Elizabeth’s reign. We end up knowing more about his daughter and her hidden affair and consequent marriage to the spoiled Robert Deveraux.
Mary, Queen of the Scots is described almost as I imagined her: pretty, attractive but probably not suited to rule and certainly not a match for her intelligent cousin, Elizabeth. After 18 years living as a captive in England, she was becoming a liability and a threat… After collecting enough evidence of Mary’s treason and plots against his queen, Walsingham, along with other advisors, convinced Elizabeth of the necessity to bring Mary to a trial and an execution. Elizabeth’s fears and hesitation clearly show she knew how delicate the situation was; any wrong decision could gain her the displeasure of her beloved people and overthrow her. She readily admitted ruling by popular consent and valued the advice of the parliament and her counselors.
Something that deeply annoyed me was the frequent pinching and slapping given by Bess to her ladies in waiting and even her favorites. She is indeed known by her mercurial temper, especially in her older years but making her punish physically and constantly everyone around her gives her a childish behavior that seems far from her personality, even as a child.
A subject much discussed about Elizabeth was her virginity. Plaidy preferred to follow the queen’s reputation and the iconic and virginal image she built to herself but other biographies do mention she had certainly some affairs. Some even suggest Thomas Seymour ravished her when she was an adolescent and living with her stepmother, Katherine Parr, leaving her somehow traumatized for her future amorous experiences.
While rushing some important parts of Elizabeth I life, I do find this Queen of this Realm an excellent debut for anyone who would like to know this queen a little better. Jean Plaidy gives us an intelligent, empathic and very astute Elizabeth who learned since early age how to reach for her goals with patience and insight. She’s not a model of perfection or sainthood, she can be vain and egocentric but she was an inspiration to the men and women of her time and even today she continues to fascinate us. Elizabeth I was certainly a woman ahead of her time.
As I mentioned before, this is my first Plaidy and certainly not the last! Thank you ladies of the Historical Tapestry for giving me this opportunity to discover another great author.
Alex is the author of Historical Tapestry's design - header, background and icons all came from her imagination - and her favourite historical characters are Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. You can visit her at Le Canapé.