Since reading Margaret Irwin’s 1925 fantasy novel, These Mortals, a few years ago, I have wanted to read one of the historical novels for which she was better known – and when I discovered that Young Bess was published in 1944, I thought it would be a good choice for the 1944 Club Simon and Karen are hosting this week.
The ‘Bess’ of the title refers to the young Elizabeth I and this book (the first in a trilogy) covers her life between the years 1545 and 1553. Having read about Elizabeth several times before, I hadn’t expected Young Bess to offer anything new – and it didn’t, really; however, it was a pleasure to read a good old-fashioned historical fiction novel with elegant prose and strong characterisation, no present tense, no experimental writing and no multiple time periods! It’s a book which completely immerses the reader in the Tudor period and the lives of Elizabeth and the historical figures who surround her, so that you reach the end feeling that you’ve read something fresh and worthwhile after all. I loved it and will definitely be going on to read the other two books in the trilogy.
The novel opens in the final years of Henry VIII’s reign; the King, now obese and in poor health, is as dangerous and unpredictable as ever, and his twelve-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – or Bess as I will call her for the remainder of this post – is already learning to navigate her way through the layers of political intrigue, betrayal and treachery that are part of everyday life for a Tudor. With the fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn, always at the back of her mind, Bess knows that nobody is safe at court and that fortunes can be made or lost in an instant.
One of the few people Bess does love and trust is her stepmother, Catherine Parr, and she goes to live with her following Henry’s death in 1547. But then Catherine marries Tom Seymour, and tensions in the household start to rise when what seem at first to be innocent games between Bess and Tom begin to develop into something more. As the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and therefore the uncle of the newly crowned Edward VI, Tom’s behaviour puts him in a precarious position at court. He lacks the power of his elder brother, Ned Seymour, who has been named Protector until the young king comes of age, but at the same time he is too powerful for his actions to be ignored. If he and Bess continue to pursue their relationship there could be tragic consequences.
All of this will be very familiar to anyone who has read Elizabeth’s story before; as I’ve said, Margaret Irwin doesn’t really offer anything different or controversial (at least nothing that hasn’t been suggested by other authors as well). Where this novel really shines is in the characterisation – although Bess is the main focus of the story, all of the other characters feel fully developed too and because the book is relatively long for the short period of history that it covers, there’s enough time for the author to go into the necessary amount of depth. I particularly enjoyed the insights we are given into the thoughts of Henry VIII in the days before his death, the transformation of Edward VI from lonely, vulnerable boy to ruthless, calculating Tudor, and the appearance at court of the Seymours’ other brother, Henry, who is far more shrewd and observant than his unsophisticated exterior suggests.
Finally, reading this with the 1944 Club in mind, I was interested to see what Tom Seymour had to say to his brother Ned about the German mercenaries he had brought in to fight in Scotland:
“Their Emperor is not the Emperor of Germany, he’s the German Emperor – of the World…And it’s this Master Race of mechanic monsters that you’re bringing into this island to fight your battles for you, against fellows who speak the same language as yourselves – and to do the dirty work you can’t get Englishmen to do.”
I am now looking forward to reading the other two books, Elizabeth, Captive Princess and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain. Has anyone seen the 1953 film version of Young Bess, starring Jean Simmons?