Despite what some may say, Philippa Gregory has talent. She knows how to keep those pages turning, and for better or worse is probably the preeminent historical novelist on the Tudor period. I enjoyed another novel of hers, The Queen’s Fool. But this? Is entirely beneath her.
I am baffled as to why Ms. Gregory chose to focus a novel around Queen Elizabeth I, whom she obviously dislikes. Her characterization of Elizabeth was problematic in The Queen’s Fool, but it has deteriorated even more in this novel. Some historians and novelists who dislike Elizabeth take it upon themselves to tear down the “Good Queen Bess” legend, and The Virgin’s Lover is a prime example: Elizabeth is portrayed as selfish, petulant, narcissistic, and obviously unfit to the high office she occupies. This last thing is damning, because even I, a rabid fan of QE1, cannot deny that she was in fact petulant, narcissistic, and selfish, along with a whole host of other unattractive traits. But she was also brilliant, patriotic, and above all an experienced politician. The notion that she would delegate important tasks to Robert Dudley or shirk her duties like a lovestruck girl is ridiculous.
Even worse, Elizabeth is torn down in order to prop Robert up. A particularly egregious example occurs early in the book after Elizabeth’s accession, when Elizabeth comes to take up residence at Whitehall. She then expresses anxiety that she doesn’t know her way around the palace (!) and her advisor William Cecil (who by the way, has served Edward VI and two Lord Protectors and should know Whitehall like the back of his hand) also has no idea how to navigate it. Whatever shall they do? Oh yes, Robert Dudley, out of the hundreds of courtiers and politicians Elizabeth should have attending her, gallantly steps in. Really. Which brings me to the second-worse characterization in the book: the aforementioned Virgin’s Lover, Robert Dudley. Although no doubt avaricious and morally ambiguous to put it charitably, by all accounts the historical Dudley seems to have genuinely loved the Queen. He certainly would never have been able to manipulate her the way he does in this book.
There are other things wrong with this book; Dudley’s unfortunate wife, Amy, is portrayed as a hapless, desperately irritating, clingy young woman, and the story is extremely repetitive. But the real crime for me is the character assassination of Elizabeth and Dudley. It does not bother me that they are unlikeable, for the historical Elizabeth and Dudley were not particularly likable people. But they are made into caricatures of themselves, robbing the reader of the much more interesting truth about one of history’s most fascinating couples.