Elizabeth I faces many challenges during her time on the throne of England: the threat of the Spanish Armada, for example, and the question of what to do about Mary, Queen of Scots. The most pressing issue for ‘the Virgin Queen’, however, is the need to secure the succession to the throne. Afraid of what might happen if their Queen was to die with no heir, her councillors advise her to marry and have children as quickly as possible. Elizabeth, though, has other ideas.
Month after month, year after year, Elizabeth promises to consider one suitor after another – her brother-in-law Philip of Spain, the Archduke Charles of Austria (son of the Holy Roman Emperor), Prince Eric of Sweden, and the Earl of Arran, just to name a few – and finds a reason to turn down every one of them. The most likely candidate, many people believe, is Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s childhood friend and the man she truly loves. But Elizabeth prefers to keep the whole of Europe in suspense, using the possibility of marriage as her bargaining power…so Robert must wait with the rest of his rivals as Elizabeth continues to play ‘the marriage game’.
In Alison Weir’s new novel, The Marriage Game, she gives a fictional account of Elizabeth’s reign with a focus on the Queen’s marriage negotiations and her relationship with Robert Dudley. Although she does stick to the known facts where possible, there are some ‘unsolved mysteries’ that are left open to interpretation, such as the death of Robert’s wife, Amy Dudley (was she murdered or was it an accident?), the question of what exactly happened between the teenage Elizabeth and her stepmother’s husband, Thomas Seymour – and of course, the mystery of why the Queen was so reluctant to marry.
Historians can’t be completely sure as to why Elizabeth never married, but Weir gives several possible explanations in this book. The most obvious reason is that, as a female monarch, Elizabeth believes that if she takes a husband he will expect to rule as King and she will have to share her power. As a Protestant, she also needs to consider the religion of any potential husband. Then there’s the possibility that she is afraid of marriage and childbearing, having witnessed her father Henry VIII’s many unhappy marriages, the fate of her own mother and the deaths of Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr in childbirth. Of course, for Elizabeth’s advisers, none of these objections to marriage seem reasonable to them; the most important thing as far as they are concerned is to find Elizabeth a suitable husband and secure England’s future. And as for poor Robert Dudley, he simply wants to marry the woman he loves.
I don’t think I’ve read a fictional representation of Elizabeth yet that I’ve actually liked and this one was no different. At the beginning of The Marriage Game, I did feel that I might be able to like this version of Elizabeth: she seemed very human and I had sympathy for a young woman who had already suffered so much unhappiness in her short life, with her mother (Anne Boleyn) being beheaded and enduring months of imprisonment herself. As the story progressed, though, I began to feel as frustrated with her as everyone else in the novel did. When Robert Dudley decided that “He had had enough…He was weary of strife and the intrigues of the court, and Elizabeth’s endless, tortuous games” I knew exactly how he felt!
This was not a bad book and I enjoyed it more than the last Alison Weir novel I read, A Dangerous Inheritance. For readers new to Elizabeth-based historical fiction it will probably be a fascinating read, but if you have read about Elizabeth’s reign before you might feel, as I did, that there’s nothing very new or different here. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the scenes in which Elizabeth’s complex relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots is discussed, with Elizabeth torn between fear of the threat Mary poses to her throne and her desire to support a fellow queen. I wonder if Alison Weir will consider writing a novel about Mary at some point in the future.
I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher via NetGalley