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Her Own Mistress

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Like many another bookish teenager, I spent the years between 12 and 17 in a fog of romance, my nose buried in a book. Quite often that book was by Margaret Irwin, whose Tudor trilogy, Young Bess (1944), Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953), tells the story of the early life and early reign of Elizabeth I. I read and reread these books, so that the characters seemed sometimes as real to me as my own family and a lot less annoying: instead of tidying my room, I could be dancing a pavane with a Tudor gallant, my heart beating with the tambours, while candlelight flickered over rich jewels and brocades.

The novels’ pitch is perfect for a dreamy adolescent, but Margaret Irwin’s books are also carefully plotted against real historical events, with dramatic set pieces – the deaths of Henry VIII and his last queen, Catherine Parr, the trial of the Seymour brothers for treason, the wedding of Mary I and Philip of Spain – and loving descriptions of ornate costumes, poetic masques, sweeping curtseys and thrillingly barbed dialogue. Characters speak a timeless English, with not a ‘prithee’ or a ‘thou’ to clutter the flow.

Young Bess opens with a party on a royal barge where the 12-yearold Elizabeth’s questioning of her favourite step-uncle, Sir Thomas Seymour – ‘My mother – was she beautiful?’, and Seymour’s answer: ‘No, but she was clever enough to make anyone think so whom she wished’ – provides one of the images that haunt the trilogy. Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn is one of history’s enigmas, a Protestant who was also a shameless flirt, an intellectual who adored finery. Elizabeth was only 2 years old when her mother was executed and she was exiled from court as the bitch’s brood, though attended by a suitably large household since she came of royal blood.

But Elizabeth had to take care of her own emotional needs and never mention

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Like many another bookish teenager, I spent the years between 12 and 17 in a fog of romance, my nose buried in a book. Quite often that book was by Margaret Irwin, whose Tudor trilogy, Young Bess (1944), Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953), tells the story of the early life and early reign of Elizabeth I. I read and reread these books, so that the characters seemed sometimes as real to me as my own family and a lot less annoying: instead of tidying my room, I could be dancing a pavane with a Tudor gallant, my heart beating with the tambours, while candlelight flickered over rich jewels and brocades.

The novels’ pitch is perfect for a dreamy adolescent, but Margaret Irwin’s books are also carefully plotted against real historical events, with dramatic set pieces – the deaths of Henry VIII and his last queen, Catherine Parr, the trial of the Seymour brothers for treason, the wedding of Mary I and Philip of Spain – and loving descriptions of ornate costumes, poetic masques, sweeping curtseys and thrillingly barbed dialogue. Characters speak a timeless English, with not a ‘prithee’ or a ‘thou’ to clutter the flow. Young Bess opens with a party on a royal barge where the 12-yearold Elizabeth’s questioning of her favourite step-uncle, Sir Thomas Seymour – ‘My mother – was she beautiful?’, and Seymour’s answer: ‘No, but she was clever enough to make anyone think so whom she wished’ – provides one of the images that haunt the trilogy. Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn is one of history’s enigmas, a Protestant who was also a shameless flirt, an intellectual who adored finery. Elizabeth was only 2 years old when her mother was executed and she was exiled from court as the bitch’s brood, though attended by a suitably large household since she came of royal blood. But Elizabeth had to take care of her own emotional needs and never mention her mother. Irwin’s subtle suggestion is that the terror of knowing Anne Boleyn’s fate damaged Elizabeth’s emotions but sharpened her survival instincts. Trust no one; dazzle everyone. Irwin develops this theme through the extraordinary turns of fate that Elizabeth survived before she ascended the throne: periods in favour at Henry’s court followed by miserable banishment from it, accu-sations of treason and heresy during the reign of her half-sister Mary, poisonous flattery from servants sent to spy on her, and spells of imprisonment under threat of death – all before she was 25. Telling the story from the maturing Elizabeth’s point of view allows Irwin to touch on more universal themes. She brilliantly portrays the bruising encounter between adolescent dreaming and treacherous adult reality. A clever girl herself – she went to Oxford in the 1920s, which was no mean feat – Irwin highlights Elizabeth’s intellect, her hours and years of arduous study, her lifelong attraction to and for men of great intellectual power, from her eminent tutor Roger Ascham to her right-hand man William Cecil and such luminaries as the scientist Dr Dee and the poet Sir Philip Sidney. She was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian, enjoyed mathematics and astronomy/astrology (the two were not then distinct), studied economics and geography, read widely in religion – and told no one what she herself believed. Her unique strength, it was said, was her ability to read men’s minds: it kept her safe through the tumultuous reigns of her half-brother Edward VI and her half-sister Mary; enabled her to survive the dangerous nine days that heralded the Seymour brothers’ attempt to put their niece Lady Jane Grey on the throne; allowed her to play off the European powers against each other; and prevented her marrying Robin Dudley, a bluff numbskull whom she loved. (When she died, they found a silver casket with a letter from him in it. On the back she had written, ‘His last letter’.) Still, Irwin is not only a romantic historian. Her political history is well researched and she has a shrewd eye for human frailty and pretension. Sharp subtexts illuminate the struggle for power among the Regency Council of Edward VI in Young Bess: the pious Good Duke (of Somerset) Edward Seymour, cloaking his naked ambition with concern for the poor, spars with the Wicked Earl (of Warwick) John Dudley, who takes no pains to conceal his own ambition by urging war with the Scots. More sympathetically, she explores the mixed motives of Henry’s last queen, Catherine Parr, who wants to be a good mother to the motherless Elizabeth but also fears Elizabeth’s attraction to her husband, Thomas Seymour. In Elizabeth, Captive Princess, Irwin brings a similar depth to the portrayal of the ill-fated Jane Grey, snatched from the schoolroom to be a puppet for her uncles’ ambitions. Here is another teenager (Jane Grey was 17 when she was executed) who could never be herself, who was bullied by her parents, by her loutish husband, even by her tutor whom she trusted. There are some powerful death scenes in this volume. Jane Grey spends her last night yearning for the peace of study in the quiet countryside and weeping for experiences she will never have; Tom Seymour dies like a tiger, fighting the axe; his brother Somerset like a gentleman, acknowledging his faults; but the Wicked Earl of Warwick dies a coward and the people laugh and shout: ‘The dog is dead!’ In Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, Irwin focuses on the tragic personality and oppressive reign of Mary I. In seeing Mary’s persecution of Protestants as fuelled by her unrequited love for her husband, Philip of Spain, and revenge for the lonely death of her mother, Katharine of Aragon (divorced by Henry VIII so he could marry Anne Boleyn), Irwin’s touch is a little less sure. It is hard for modern writers to comprehend the intensity of religious belief that animated many centuries of human existence, but the evidence does suggest that Mary truly believed that burning heretics might bring their souls to grace, horrific as such a belief may seem to us. Where Irwin is much stronger is in the love scenes between Philip and Elizabeth (for which there is no evidence) and Elizabeth and Robin Dudley. These are thrilling to read but they also affirm Elizabeth’s independence: ‘She could not bear to give herself up into the power of any other thing or being. Neither man nor magic, wine nor lust, should ever be her master. However passionately she might desire to be his mistress, she would always want far more to be her own.’ You might think that in pinning each of the three books around an abortive love affair, Irwin seems a conventional romantic novelist. But what Elizabeth learns from each lover upsets such a perception. In Young Bess, as a teenager confused by her own body, she learns in her flirtation with Tom Seymour first of a young girl’s power to elicit desire, then that desire can betray, and finally that it can and must be mastered. In Elizabeth, Captive Princess, as a young woman fully conscious of her own allure, she learns from Robin Dudley that the one who can control their instincts is in charge. She keeps her own counsel. Imprisoned in the Tower, the only locale in which historians believe that the two may actually have consummated their long relationship, Elizabeth promises but never quite delivers. Always aware of the possibility of treachery, by other prisoners, by the gaoler’s family, by her own governess or waiting women, she keeps Dudley on the simmer, slipping away from clandestine dinners, answering love notes with oblique billets-doux. Famously, she etched the following words with a diamond ring on a window pane: ‘Much suspected of me, Nothing proved can be, Quoth Elizabeth, prisoner.’ Finally, as a reigning monarch in Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, she learns from Philip of Spain how to use men’s vanity against them. This last book perhaps points to how the historical novel form is less well adapted to politics than to personalities. The marriage of princes in the sixteenth century was not really about love but about alliances. Still, Elizabeth did spend thirty years playing off suitors (and hence other countries) against each other, since no powerful man in that era could ever believe that a woman might intend to reign alone. And young Elizabeth, as the early portraits show, was indeed not beautiful but like her mother had enough laughter and witchery in her looks to make people believe that she might be. Ultimately, these were lessons of statecraft, not love. And ultim-ately, Irwin’s novels are about how women can succeed in the world without denying their femininity. That might not be a popular theme today, but I can think of few other novels that so successfully trace how to manage being a clever, ambitious girl with awakening heterosexual urges. Elizabeth tests her wits and powers of attraction on her father’s courtiers, her stepmother and half-sister, her step-uncles, the soldiers sent to guard her, the children of the warder in the Tower, the people in the streets, her governess. Everyone betrays her, but she makes them love her anyway. The story of Elizabeth I is itself a gripping one: a strong woman who survived turbulent times and celebrated both her strength and her womanliness. Irwin’s achievement is to fuse that famous story with a more universal one: how a child might become such a strong woman. Vivat Gloriana.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Victoria Neumark 2017


About the contributor

Victoria Neumark wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in the Tudor court. She has spent too much of her life staring out of the window, but it’s too late to change now.

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