Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Life of Elizabeth I

The Life of Elizabeth I
© 1998, 2003 Alison Weir
542 pages

"She certainly is a great queen [...]. Just look how well she governs! She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all! " - Pope Sixtus V, p. 399

When I received a bookstore gift card from my place of work as an end-of-the-school-term gift, I put it to use and bought The Life of Elizabeth I.  Weir's biography of Elizabeth was recommended by Elizabeth's Facebook "fans", and Weir's biographical novel of Elizabeth has been one of the year's most enjoyable reads. I've been meaning to read it, but have been otherwise occupied. Six hours spent accompanying someone to the emergency room and an afternoon without electricity in the wake of a severe thunderstorm gave me ample opportunity to visit Weir's treatment.

Weir chooses to focus on Elizabeth in her role as queen in this novel, beginning with her coronation and ending with her death: Elizabeth's early years were covered in The Children of Henry VIII. She places general emphasis on foreign affairs and life at court, which are tangentially related: more than a few members of her court are involved in urging her to marry one European prince or another, and in an age where nations' destinies were decided by members of interrelated royal families, marriage and politics were conjoined. The Spanish and French empires are Elizabeth's most powerful adversaries, and she spends much of her life delicately arranging the protection of one while avoiding the wrath of the other. This is not always possible: her reign reaches its greatest when Spain's "Grand Armada", intending on delivering an invasion fleet, is destroyed. Scandals among Elizabeth's court constitute most of the text dedicated to domestic affairs, with religious strife occupying the rest. Elizabeth has inherited her father's role as governor of the English church, now formally divided from the Catholic church, but not moving too much in the direction of the Protestants. Religion and politics are closely linked in this age:  her cousin Mary Stuart, a rival to the throne, relies on Catholic resentment  to continually scheme to overthrown the Queen,

Weir's treatment is one grand chronologically-arranged narrative, divided into sections but ever moving forward. Thus we gain a picture of Elizabeth maturing from giddy youth to graceful age, supported by an ever-changing court.  Elizabeth's marriage prospects dominate the opening of the book: as she ages and loses childbearing potential, her rivals and foes choose to attempt to bend England to their will through force: religious insurrections become a constant threat, particularly from Catholic quarters. Although Elizabeth is generally well-liked, both Puritans and Catholics give her cause to grief.  Weir occasionally breaks from the constant stream of stories to offer general assessments of Elizabeth as a person: these segments interested me most. I am particularly interested in Elizabeth as a free-spirited intellectual who loved dancing and who resorted to translating classical orders into English to maintain control of her temper.

The recommendation from Elizabeth's fans was warranted. The narrative is easily digestible and Weir offers plenty of background for fully understanding some of the episodes in her life. I look forward to reading more from this author.


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