My good friend Elizabeth from Everything Tudor is hosting a giveaway of “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel. This acclaimed novel was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize in the UK and has won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man who rises to a position of power at a water-shed moment in history–the English Reformation. The winner of the giveaway will receive the U.S. paperback edition of the novel.
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“The Secret Lion” is in many ways an old-fashioned spy novel, complete with an intelligent but scrappy protagonist, shady pay-masters, and an overarching mystery. What distinguishes this book from the rest is that it is set in Tudor England, during the uncertain last months of the troubled reign of Edward VI. It is also written by C.W. Gortner, who has gone on to write two well-regarded historical novels on Catherine De’Medici and “Juana the Mad” of Spain.
I bought this book after being captivated by an excerpt I read on Google Books; the perspective of a lowly servant, Brendan Prescott, is a fascinating lens through which to view the powerful Tudor figures. I was also intrigued by the characterization of Elizabeth, which is definitely a strength of the story. However, the early promise I saw never materialized as the book sank deeper into improbable action story lines and disappointingly two-dimensional characterizations. By the time the final (in my opinion, ludicrous) plot twist was revealed, I found myself not caring much anymore.
This is not to say that “The Secret Lion” is a terrible book. It’s not. As I mentioned before, Gortner’s Princess Elizabeth rings true. Sir William Cecil and Francis Walsingham are portrayed as amoral guardians of Elizabeth; an interesting but compelling choice, especially for the former. Robert Dudley’s portrayal is over-the-top; he’s a borderline sociopath obsessed with Elizabeth. That being said, his narcissism and ambition are probably not that far-off from that of the historical Dudley. Frances Grey, mother of Lady Jane Grey, fares even less well. She is described as “monstrous” and given a completely unwarranted role as chief villain. Lady Dudley is for some reason portrayed as an evil matriarch type who in one scene murders an old woman. Frankly, this is ridiculous. The noble families of the Tudor age were ambitious, even cutthroat, but I don’t think these high-born ladies literally slit people’s throats.
All in all: a good read if you like suspense novels, but don’t read it if you expect historical accuracy.
Don’t be put off by the title: “Virgin and the Crab” refers in no way to some type of venereal disease. It in fact tells the story of two remarkable Renaissance figures; the young Elizabeth Tudor and John Dee, a brilliant mathematician and astrologer (among other things) who serves her. The title refers to the astrological signs of Dee and Elizabeth, and the sly wit of the title infuses the rest of the book.
The book traces the treacherous years leading up to the accession of Elizabeth, particularly the reign of Mary I. A well-known story to Tudor enthusiasts, but Parry makes it fresh with engaging, witty prose and wonderful characterization. The joy of the book is in the detail in which less well-known Tudor characters are portrayed. The stars of the tale are a group of academics and reformers who share an idealistic dream of England’s future under Elizabeth. They include several non-household names such as Elizabeth’s tutor, Roger Achasm, humanist John Cheke, the more well-known William Cecil (who usually is portrayed as some sort of dour bureaucrat, but here is brought to vivid life), and even Robert Dudley. Elizabeth also makes several appearances, but the book really belongs to Dee. He is shown here as a figure of marvelous complexity; a spy, a teacher, a mystic. It is a wonderful characterization on which the whole book rests.
The book is written in present tense, giving the setting an appropriately mystical feel. The language is hypnotic at times, and sharply witty at others. Instances of humor abound, such as the Spanish ambassador’s botched attempt at an English saying, or Cecil’s indignant response to Dee’s insinuation that he can’t fight; his grandfather fought at Bosworth Field! Dee’s response is priceless: “Wonderful. Do you think he could be persuaded to come with us?”
Unfortunately, the delightful detail of the book is a double-edged sword; an average Joe is probably not acquainted with the minor characters and nuances of the age which “Virgin and the Crab” is concerned with. A character chart at the beginning of the book is handy, but I got the feeling that had I not been as deeply fascinated with Tudor history as I am, I might have had trouble following along. That being said, not every book can or should have mass commercial appeal; “Virgin and the Crab” is an absolute feast for Tudorphiles, and in that respect it is a major success.
The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn is based on a creative, if far-fetched idea: Anne keeps a diary chronicling her journey from lady-in-waiting to Queen Consort to her tragic end. She tells a servant to keep the diary and give it to her daughter Elizabeth when she’s old enough to read it. More than a quarter of a century later, twenty-five year old Elizabeth has ascended the throne as Elizabeth I and is in love with her Master of Horse Robert Dudley. The servant gives her the diary, and thus we are propelled between Elizabeth’s life and Anne’s experiences, recorded in the diary.
The idea is surprisingly well-executed. Anne is portrayed sympathetically and Elizabeth’s relationship with Dudley is very sweet–but like everything else in the book, far too sentimental. The Elizabeth/Dudley relationship for the most part was not sweet; it was passionate and bitter and based on a shared love of power as much as love for each other. Similarly, I appreciate that Anne Boleyn was not characterized as a scheming whore, but I didn’t recognize the mild, almost naive girl in the book. And while the idea that Elizabeth used her mother’s mistakes as the inspiration for her much vaunted vow of celibacy is touching, it does Elizabeth a disservice to ignore the very complicated psychological and political reasons that turned her into “the Virgin Queen.”
I liked that the author tried to humanize Anne and Elizabeth, but in doing so they lost their bite. While I believe both were capable of love, they were primarily political animals. The watered-down version of both women portrayed in this book does not do either of them justice.
I admit to being a bit of a David Starkey fangirl, and thus biased in my opinion. That being said, this is possibly my favorite work of non-fiction about Elizabeth. This fresh biography examines Elizabeth’s turbulent childhood and young adulthood. It was not an easy one. Her mother Anne Boleyn was executed when she was only three; after that she subjected to a revolving door of stepmothers, sexually abused and threatened with execution at age fifteen, and imprisoned and in danger of her life for most of her early twenties. And yet, it is these terrifying circumstances that formed Elizabeth’s enigmatic and remarkable character.
Starkey is as terrific a writer as he is a lecturer; his style is amusing and accessible. He pays tribute to Elizabeth’s achievements without being unduly worshipful, and dispels many of the more romantic myths about Elizabeth; far from the innocent red-haired girl sitting under the oak tree awaiting her destiny, she was in fact an experienced and ruthless opposition politician who had already formed a shadow cabinet prior to her sister’s death.
The scholarship here is of course impeccable. But the book is never stuffy. There are many fine full biographies of Elizabeth out there, but I would love one by David Starkey. His documentary of Elizabeth’s life is very good; however I prefer his writing. Powers that be, take note!
There is a lot I could pick on in this novel. The protagonist, Hannah Verde, is a suspiciously progressive-thinking young Jewish girl living in England to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Although her personality is wildly anachronistic for the time period, she’s an engaging enough heroine. The plot depends on the contrivance that Hannah somehow becomes a close attendant to both Mary I and her half-sister the Lady Elizabeth. Despite knowing that Mary would have her burned at the stake if she knew of her religion, she is improbably devoted to her. And if this were not enough to stretch credibility, Hannah is also gifted with the supernatural gift of “the Sight.” Yet despite all of this, The Queen’s Fool is an entertaining page-turner of a historical romance/thriller.
Hannah is the eyes through which we see the rivalry between Mary I, gifted with the unfortunate name of “Bloody Mary” by posterity, and her sister the celebrated future Elizabeth I. The author is obviously biased in favor of Mary, which is not entirely unfair as Mary arguably possessed more personal virtues than Elizabeth. But the extent to which Elizabeth is vilified is ridiculous. The smear campaign begins when Hannah sees the fourteen-year old Elizabeth engaged in sexually-charged “games” with Sir Thomas Seymour, husband of her guardian Catherine Parr. It is stated several times throughout the book that Elizabeth somehow encouraged this behavior, and is later used as evidence that Elizabeth is a chronic home-wrecker who enjoys stealing other women’s husbands. While it is true that Elizabeth enjoyed relationships with married men in her reign, most infamously Robert Dudley, I found the notion that at age fourteen she seduced the man who abused his position as her guardian and probably molested her rather offensive.
Apart from the less-than-ideal characterization of Elizabeth, the book is entertaining and compulsively readable. The better portrayals are actually of lesser-known historical figures, like the late King Henry VIII’s jester Will Sommers and John Dee, mathematician and astrologer extraordinaire. Serious history this is not, but as a light bit of fluff with a backdrop of familiar Tudor characters it works well.
There are plenty of reasons to like this book. But chief among them is the fact that this work of fiction is written by a reputable historian, Alison Weir, who knows her stuff and for the most part doesn’t mess with the history (except for one controversial plot point) which I appreciated. Her understanding of Elizabeth’s character helps her here; and while her Elizabeth is not as compelling as in Susan Kay’s “Legacy” or even “I, Elizabeth” she is convincingly authentic. The young Elizabeth is endearingly precocious, much as she would have been in real life (at age three after the death of her mother and her bastardization, the perceptive child was recorded as having asked her steward, “How haps it, my lord, that yesterday my lady Princess and today my lady Elizabeth?”). I found the qualities of vanity and imperiousness in the young Elizabeth rather adorable. It is when she enters adolescence that the book loses its way.
The well-known story of Elizabeth’s seduction at the hands of Thomas Seymour is told with a twist here. Without spoiling the story I’ll say that it causes Elizabeth quite a lot of trouble which ultimately harms the book. Elizabeth’s story is exciting enough without any artificial drama. Weir based this particular plot point on a rumor, making it not completely out-of-left-field. But I found it disappointing in a book that was otherwise historically accurate.
Overall however, I think this book should be part of the collection of any Queen Elizabeth I fan. For a beginner, I would recommend the novels “Legacy” and I, Elizabeth” which tell the same story slightly less in depth but without the irritating plot contrivance.