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?

These Mortals by Margaret Irwin

These Mortals I wasn’t familiar with Margaret Irwin until a few months ago when Jane wrote about one of her other books, Still She Wished for Company. It sounded intriguing, so when I had the opportunity to read this one, which has been released this month as an ebook by Bloomsbury Reader, I decided to investigate.

These Mortals is a fantasy novel originally published in 1925, taking its title from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Lord, what fools these mortals be”). But it was another of his plays – The Tempest – that I was reminded of when I began to read, because like Miranda in The Tempest, the heroine in this book is the daughter of a powerful magician. Her name is Melusine and she has grown up isolated from human society, living with her father, the Enchanter Aldebaran, in his palace by the sea.

Although Melusine loves her three best friends, the Cat, the Raven and the Snake, she longs to meet other human beings like herself. One day she makes a magic ship from a shell, a rose petal and a silver pin and uses it to sail across a moonbeam to the human world beyond. Arriving in the kingdom of the Emperor Eminondas, Melusine begins to learn the ways of mortals and discovers what it means to fall in love.

This book is written in the style of a fairy tale, complete with princes and princesses, shipwrecked kings and woodcutters’ daughters, poets, magicians and talking animals. It’s all very dreamlike and it feels timeless. There are elements of other classic myths and legends too, particularly the legend of the water fairy, Melusina, who married a mortal man, Count Raymond of Poitou.

The only problem with this fairy tale atmosphere is that I felt there was a distance between the reader and the characters; they didn’t feel like real people and apart from Melusine herself, they didn’t come to life at all. I found it difficult at first to distinguish between the various members of the Emperor’s court (Princess Blanchelys, Lady Valeria, Sir Oliver and Sir Diarmid) and to remember who was in love with who. I was much more interested in Melusine’s personal story. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she uses her magical powers – and I found myself looking forward to any appearances of the Cat, the Raven and the Snake!

There’s also some humour in the story, as there are so many aspects of human life of which Melusine has no knowledge or understanding.

“Tell me,” she said, “of that game I have heard you speak of to others, an ancient solitary game that is played with clubs by half-naked savages in the northern hills. There seems so much to tell of that game that it must surely be more exciting than any tale of love or perilous adventure.”

“Ah, there’s nothing like a good game of golf,” he said.

I suspect this was probably not the best Margaret Irwin book for me to have started with, but it was an unusual and entertaining novel and I still enjoyed it. It’s a very short book, but long enough for the story that is being told. Now I’m interested in trying some of the historical novels the author is more famous for.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a review copy via NetGalley