Catching up: Three mini-reviews

I always try to finish reviewing the current year’s reads before the new year begins (although I don’t always manage it), so today I’m catching up by posting some brief thoughts on three books read in November and December.

I added None But Elizabeth to my TBR a few years ago after reading Rhoda Edwards’ two novels about Richard III, Some Touch of Pity and Fortune’s Wheel, both of which I enjoyed. This one, first published in 1982, is a fictional retelling of the life of Elizabeth I. The book is written in a straightforward, linear style as we follow Elizabeth from childhood to old age.

There are some things Edwards does very well – the depiction of Elizabeth’s feelings for Robert Dudley, the man she loves but never marries; Elizabeth’s internal conflict over how to deal with the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots; the symbolism used to mark the passing of time; the way in which Elizabethan poetry is woven into the text – but as someone who has read about Elizabeth many times before, there was nothing new or different here. I would recommend reading Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess or Margaret George’s Elizabeth I rather than this one.

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow is a multiple time period novel in which our present day narrator, an aspiring interior designer, finds a beautiful quilt in her mother’s attic with a message embroidered into the lining. She sets out to learn more about the quilt and discovers a connection with a young woman called Maria who spent most of her life in a mental hospital claiming to be a former lover of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). As Maria’s story unfolds, in the form of taped interviews recorded by a student in the 1970s, we find out whether she was telling the truth and, if so, what secrets are hidden in the quilt’s design.

I wasn’t expecting too much from this book, but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would – and for once, I found the modern day storyline as compelling as the historical one. On one level it’s almost a mystery novel, with the narrator hunting for clues to the quilt’s origins, tracking down people who may have known Maria and piecing fragments of information together to try to discover the truth. However, it also provides some insights into social issues such as living conditions in mental institutions, psychiatric treatment in the early 20th century and the later policy of ‘care in the community’. Some parts of the story were too predictable, but it was an interesting read overall and I will probably look for more of Liz Trenow’s books.

A Princely Knave was the oldest remaining book on my NetGalley shelf (from 2016, I’m ashamed to say). After receiving a copy, I read some negative reviews that put me off it, but in November I finally decided to give it a try. The book was originally published in 1956 as They Have Their Dreams and tells the story of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. Warbeck claimed to be Richard of York, one of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’ – the sons of Edward IV who disappeared from the Tower of London, believed to have been murdered. The novel begins with Warbeck landing in Cornwall in 1497, hoping to lead an army to overthrow Henry VII and take his place on the throne.

Philip Lindsay uses flowery and often antiquated language, a style which was common in older historical novels but feels very dated today. However, I’ve read one or two of his other books so was prepared for this. The biggest problem I had with this particular book was that, apart from Warbeck himself, the characters feel underdeveloped – the group of men who accompany Warbeck in his rebellion are almost indistinguishable and the only significant female character, Warbeck’s wife Katherine Gordon, also lacks depth. Lindsay does explore some fascinating ideas, though; for example, he suggests that even Warbeck himself doesn’t know who he really is – having been told by some that he has royal blood and by others that he is the son of Flemish merchants, he has become unsure of his real identity. I thought it was worth reading, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re as interested in this period as I am.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin

I loved Young Bess, the first book in Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth I trilogy, so I didn’t want to wait too long before picking up the second. I was hoping for another great read but, although there was still a lot to like about this book, I didn’t think it was as good as the first one.

Published in 1948, Elizabeth, Captive Princess, continues the story of the young Elizabeth. The novel begins with the death of Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, leaving the succession to the throne of England in doubt. We then follow the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days before eventually being beheaded after Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary comes to the throne. This is a fate that Elizabeth could face herself as she also becomes linked with plots and conspiracies during Mary’s reign, leading to her imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Before the novel ends, two very different men have entered Elizabeth’s life: one is Robert Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland and another prisoner in the Tower; the other is Philip of Spain, who has come to England at last to marry Queen Mary. I would expect Elizabeth’s relationships with these two men to form the basis of the final book in the trilogy, Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but this particular book concentrates on the stories of Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. We actually see very little of Elizabeth herself in this book, which I thought was strange as she is the title character, although I suppose it’s not too surprising as a lot of the drama during this specific period was taking place elsewhere.

The lack of focus on Elizabeth wasn’t really a problem for me in itself; after all, in Young Bess it had been the secondary characters that I found most interesting anyway, particularly Thomas Seymour and his brothers Edward and Henry. But the characters in this book just don’t come to life in the way that the Seymours did and I struggled to connect with any of them on an emotional level. This made the novel feel a bit slow and flat, which was disappointing for me after enjoying the first one so much.

I don’t want to sound too negative, though, because I did like this book and the quality of Margaret Irwin’s writing still makes it a worthwhile read. I love her descriptive writing and the way she recreates Tudor London:

It was seven o’clock as they entered the city of London. The sun was setting in a fury of flame and storm-clouds. All the dark rickety wooden houses leaning top-heavily across the streets as though they were nodding to each other, all but rubbing each other’s foreheads, all seemed to have put on scarves and petticoats, so many bright cloths fluttered from the windows, while the gaily painted shop signs flaunted and creaked and clattered in the breeze.

Away from the main storylines, I enjoyed all the other little details of 16th century life and 16th century history. For example, I was interested in the account of the Edward Bonaventure’s voyages to the White Sea and the ‘strange land of endless snow’ which I first read about in The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett.

Having come this far, I will be finishing the trilogy with Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but will then look forward to reading some of Margaret Irwin’s other books. I have The Galliard, her novel about Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Bothwell on my TBR and would also like to read The Stranger Prince, about Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin – #1944Club

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 suppose the war was never far from anyone’s thoughts in the 1940s, even when writing about the 16th century!

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?

Lynda M. Andrews: The Tudor Heritage and Elizabeth the Witch’s Daughter

A few years ago I read The Queen’s Promise, a book about Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy by an author called Lyn Andrews. I stated in my review that it appeared to be Andrews’ first novel in the historical fiction genre, her others being mainly family sagas set in 20th century Liverpool. It seems that I was wrong, though, because in the 1970s she had several Tudor novels published under the name of Lynda M. Andrews; they have been reissued by Canelo and I have had the opportunity through NetGalley to read two of them.

The Tudor Heritage (1977) opens in 1560, shortly after Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne of England. The novel follows Elizabeth throughout her entire reign, covering such topics as her love for Robert Dudley, her determination not to marry, the problems she faced in dealing with Mary, Queen of Scots, and her relationship with the Earl of Essex. For such a short book – around 250 pages long – there’s a lot of history to include, so it’s inevitable that a lot has had to be left out. However, for a reader new to the period this would be a chance to gain a good overview of the key events and figures of Elizabeth’s reign.

While we do spend a lot of time with Elizabeth, seeing things from her point of view, we also meet the family of Sir Richard Allgrave, a friend of the Queen’s secretary William Cecil. The Allgraves, who appear to be fictional, provide us with another perspective on Elizabethan life, being close to the court but also outside it. Occasionally there are parallels – such as when Sir Richard’s daughter Isabelle vows, like the Queen, to marry a man of her own choosing or not at all – but otherwise I felt that the main purpose of the Allgrave family in the novel was to allow us to see things which Elizabeth herself didn’t experience. For example, one of the Allgraves accompanies Sir Francis Drake on one of his voyages, while several others battle against the Spanish Armada.

The novel is written in a style which is generally clear and easy to read, but now and then the author puts words into Elizabeth’s mouth which sound as though they were drawn directly from 16th century historical documents. This makes a strange contrast with the rest of the dialogue and just didn’t feel right. On the whole, though, I found The Tudor Heritage quite an enjoyable read – but too short and slight to be completely satisfying.

Elizabeth, the Witch’s Daughter (also published in 1977) is the first part of Elizabeth’s story so should really be read before The Tudor Heritage. I did things backwards, but it didn’t matter as I’m already familiar with the period of history – if you’re not, I would recommend reading them in order! This one begins with Elizabeth as a little girl, then takes us through her teenage years and the reigns of her half-brother Edward VI and half-sister Mary I, to end with Elizabeth herself being crowned Queen of England.

Again, this is a short book, but it covers a shorter period of history and this time there is no fictional family to share the pages with Elizabeth. Even so, the novel still doesn’t go into a great amount of depth and there is very little in the way of character development – although I did like the portrayal of Elizabeth’s relationship with her governess and friend Kat Ashley. Elizabeth’s feelings for her mother, Anne Boleyn, are explored, but I thought more could have been made of this – the title of the book had led me to assume that Anne and her legacy would have formed a bigger part of the story.

I think both of these novels would be worth reading if you knew very little about Elizabeth I and wanted to add to your knowledge without committing to anything longer and more challenging. If you’ve read about Elizabeth many times before, as I have, there’s nothing very new or different here. The other two reissues by Canelo are The White Lion of Norfolk, about Thomas Howard (uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) and The Danish Queen, about Anne of Denmark – as I know much less about both of those people, maybe I would have enjoyed those books more than the two I read. I do remember being a lot more impressed with The Queen’s Promise, particularly the Henry Percy sections; it’s interesting to see how Lyn Andrews’ writing has changed and improved over the years.

Two from Maureen Peters

Maureen Peters (1935-2008) was a Welsh historical novelist and yet another forgotten author whose work is being reissued for a modern audience by Endeavour Press. It seems that Peters was very prolific, writing over one hundred books under several different pseudonyms; most of them were fictional biographies of historical royalty, but she also wrote romances, Gothic novels, family sagas and mysteries. Having now had the opportunity to read two of her books I thought I would combine my thoughts on both of them into one post.

The Queenmaker The first book I’m going to talk about, The Queenmaker (1975), tells the story of Bess Hardwick, one of the richest and most notable women of the Elizabethan court, responsible for the building of great houses such as Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall. Born in Derbyshire, Bess is married at an early age to Robert Barlow, the heir of a neighbouring family, and finds herself a widow within a year. She will marry three more times over the course of her life and with each marriage her wealth increases and her position in society advances. She becomes a friend of Elizabeth I (the queen acts as godmother to her first son), and also has the opportunity to get to know Mary, Queen of Scots during her captivity in England.

With power and influence, though, comes the threat of danger. When Bess arranges a marriage for her daughter with Charles Stuart (son of the Countess of Lennox, Henry VIII’s niece), the family instantly come under suspicion because the child of this marriage, a little girl called Arbella, has Tudor blood and therefore a claim to the crown. As the years go by and Arbella grows into a woman, Bess becomes more and more convinced that her granddaughter will be named heir to the throne and that she – Bess Hardwick – will go down in history as a queenmaker.

Before reading this book I knew very little about Bess; I had come across her name several times in books set at Elizabeth’s court, but I couldn’t have told you any details of her personal life or her accomplishments. Because so much in this novel was new to me, I found it quite an enjoyable read. Obviously I knew that Bess wouldn’t achieve her ambition and Arbella wouldn’t become queen, but I was still interested to see how the story would unfold. However, I thought this book was too short to be completely satisfying. Trying to give an account of an entire life in under 200 pages means leaving big gaps in the story and jumping forward by several years at the start of every chapter. A longer novel would have allowed characters and events to be explored more thoroughly.

The Virgin Queen The Virgin Queen (1972) is another quick and fairly entertaining read which, as the title suggests, focuses on the life of Elizabeth I herself this time. Our narrator is Tomasin Drew, Elizabeth’s friend and companion, who first meets the future queen when Elizabeth is still a young girl living in the household of her stepmother, Katherine Parr. Tomasin remains with the queen for more than fifty years, offering support and friendship throughout the key moments of her life and reign.

Elizabeth is portrayed as a spirited, flirtatious and capricious woman, if not a very likeable one: a strong character, who jumps out of the pages of this novel, unlike Tomasin who stays in the background. Tomasin’s role is as an observer, reporting and commenting on events for the reader; her own personal story is left undeveloped, putting the spotlight firmly on Elizabeth. As with The Queenmaker, though, the approach Maureen Peters takes is disappointingly simplistic. This is another very short novel – too short to look at Elizabeth’s life in any real depth – and there’s nothing new here for those of us who have read about Elizabeth I many times before.

I think both The Virgin Queen and The Queenmaker might be good choices for younger readers or those who simply want a quick introduction to the Elizabethan period (while being aware that not everything in these books will be completely accurate – I spotted at least a few statements for which there is no historical proof, such as Anne Boleyn having six fingers on one hand). I haven’t ruled out reading more of Maureen Peters’ novels, but I’m not in any hurry to do so while there are so many other authors still to discover.

I received copies of both of the above novels via NetGalley for review.

The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

The Marriage Game 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

Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George

Elizabeth I I don’t think I really need to write a plot summary of this book, do I? Elizabeth I: A Novel is exactly as the title suggests – a novel about Elizabeth I. Not just about Elizabeth, of course. Although the story is narrated by the queen herself, all the important historical figures of the period are here – from sailors and explorers (Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh), to politicians and advisers (Francis Walsingham, Robert Cecil), and poets and playwrights (Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare). And if this all seems very male-dominated, there’s also another very important female character, Lettice Knollys, who shares the narration with Elizabeth.

Lettice Knollys was Elizabeth’s cousin, but at the time when this novel begins the two haven’t spoken for many years following Lettice’s marriage to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a man with whom Elizabeth was once thought to have been romantically involved. Lettice has been banished from court and her hopes of being allowed to return rest on her son, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex – but when he becomes the centre of a rebellion against the queen, it seems Lettice’s hopes could be destroyed. Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex and how she deals with his rebellion form a big part of the story.

When I saw the size of this novel (nearly 700 pages) I expected it to cover the whole of Elizabeth’s life. It doesn’t. It starts towards the end of her reign, just before the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and takes us through only the last few years of her life (Elizabeth died in 1603). You can probably imagine, then, how in-depth and detailed the book is to take so many pages to cover such a short period of Elizabeth’s reign. The only problem with this is that things quickly start to become repetitive. The changing of the seasons every year is described in minute detail every time – a cold winter, a hot summer, a bad harvest…over and over again. I couldn’t help thinking that some editing would have improved things and made the book a more gripping read. As it was, it felt far too long and I started to get bored towards the end (and I don’t usually have a problem with long books).

Apart from this, Elizabeth I wasn’t a bad book and I could tell that a huge amount of research must have gone into it. Although I read lots of historical fiction, I haven’t actually read many books about Elizabeth so there was enough new material here to leave me with the feeling that I had really learned a lot. I should also point out that this is definitely not a romance or a bodice ripper – the focus is on Elizabeth herself, as a strong, intelligent, competent woman facing challenges both within her own kingdom and from overseas, including poverty, famine and the constant threat of attack from Spain. One aspect of Elizabeth’s life that I thought Margaret George portrayed very convincingly was the way she felt as she tried to come to terms with growing older and watching her most trusted friends and advisers dying one by one of old age.

I thought the choice of Lettice as the second viewpoint character was a good one. Not only do her chapters of the book give us a chance to see what’s going on away from Elizabeth’s court, but Lettice also offers a very different outlook on life. The two women have such different priorities and motivations – while Elizabeth considers herself ‘married to England’ and is always thinking of what is best for the country, the most important thing to Lettice is her family, particularly her son, the Earl of Essex. While there is not a lot of distinction between the narrative voices of the two women and without the chapter headings it might even have been difficult to tell who was narrating at times, I found Lettice an easier character to understand than Elizabeth – though I’m not sure if I can really say that I ‘liked’ either of them.

The other characters in the book felt less developed, maybe because we only saw them through the eyes of Elizabeth and Lettice, and despite having such an interesting collection of historical characters to work with, George never really succeeded in bringing them to life for me. The book isn’t badly written – quite the opposite, in fact – I just found it a bit dry and lacking any special magic. This is the first Margaret George book I’ve read, though, and the few problems I’ve mentioned here haven’t stopped me wanting to try her others!