© 2015 Alison Weir
Among the requirements for peace and stability in premodern Europe was a unbroken line of succession among the monarchy. If a king died without a clear heir, competing claimants could ruin a nation with civil war. Such was Henry VIII's urgency to make sure he had an incontrovertible successor that he went through six wives trying to find one who could given him a son who lived. Elizabeth faced the same dilemma to a greater degree, being the offspring of a suspect marriage: she needed a source of legitimacy more than anything. Why, in days steeped in tradition and with so much at stake, did Elizabeth avoid the marriage bed? Possible motives are teased out through the novel, among them a skepticism of marriage borne of seeing her father's collection of beheaded and divorced wives, the fear that husbands and sons would be threats to her supremacy, and the fact that the possibility of marriage was an excellent diplomatic tool. So long as the princes of Europe thought Elizabeth might marry into one of their families, they were less disposed to threaten war -- useful, given that Elizabeth's precariousness, the questionably-legitimate ruler of a state divorced from the Catholic faith of all of Europe. If she actually married into those families, all would be lost: England would be entangled into France and the Holy Roman Empire's innumerable conflicts, or worse yet into the brewing religious wars that would set fire to the blood of England's own bloodthirsty radicals and reactionaries. But if she could only make them think they had a shot, England might safely navigate the rocks and shoals of 16th century Europe.
Leading on the aristocracy is one thing, leading on herself and a subject she evidently loved -- along with the reader -- quite another. A variety of European princes try to woo Elizabeth's hand; French princes, Spanish kings, a Holy Roman archduke, some Swedish fellow -- but none stood a chance against her own "Eyes", her Master of Horse, her Robert Dudley. Friends since childhood, and heavy-petting companions, Robert and 'Bess' spend the entire novel being miserable over one another. They are in love, regardless of how many people they lead on, but this is one relationship doomed from having its happily ever after. They are enraptured by one another, yet never find fulfillment; Elizabeth is forever dancing away, either because the country would riot at a queen marrying a lower-born noble whose parents were condemned as rebels, or because it's too diplomatically useful to be courted as a wedding prize, or because she is intimidated by the very act of consummation. Regardless of the reasons, it's utterly exasperating, because the same scenes reenact themselves throughout: Elizabeth and Robert get close, vow marriage, Elizabeth says 'Just wait next year', expects Robert to support in council her plans for blowing off this European noble to woo that European noble, then gets huffy when he glances at women who aren't royal teases. Two decades this goes on, as he gets fat and tired and she gets toothless and wrinkled. (And then they die.) Even when Elizabeth's councilors have given up hope of her marrying European royalty, and grown to appreciate her rascal-at-court, she vacillates. If it weren't based in part on a true story, who on Earth would subject themselves to 300 pages of two people wanting nothing more to be the other's everything, not letting themselves do it, and then dying, buried with more regrets than flowers?
Although The Marriage Game can be enjoyed, Elizabeth and Dudley are pathetic in the truest sense of the word, and Elizabeth borders on manipulative. Unfortunately, aside from some slight mentions of diplomacy (hard to skip the Spanish Armada) and a few token mentions of religion (also hard to skip the Pope giving the OK for Elizabeth to be forcibly removed from office), the entirety of the book is taken up with Elizabeth's romance. It is virtually the only thing anyone is concerned with in the novel. Even when the Armada sets off, it seems to be predicated on the Spanish giving up on an Elizabethan romance. Elizabeth was a woman worthy of awe, and an admirable monarch, but the Bess of this work is a vain, manipulative princess who allows life to waste away with control games. It's a sad story, and an unfortunate sequel to Weir's charming The Lady Elizabeth.