I bought a nice Reprint Society copy of Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) on my last trip to Hay on Wye, wanting to read it again after forty years or so. It’s very good, if a little expositional: she dumps information skilfully into the narrative through character dialogue, which means she sometimes moves her focalisation (whose thoughts the reader is reading) into a minor character to press another factoid onto the reader, which jars a little. But I had forgotten or not realised that Irwin’s key plot points and dialogue are taken from letters of the period and from contemporary historical evidence: this novel simply reeks of the sixteenth century, and very good it is too.
There is nothing that damns a historical novel for me as hard as inadequate historicity in the dialogue. If the characters can’t speak in a way that blends them into their historical setting, then what is the point? If the author is playing it for laughs, or is being deliberately anachronistic or speculative, then that’s a different kind of fantasy writing. But when you are attempting to take the reader back into history, failing to copy or at least suggest the way people spoke at that time just misses the point of what you are doing, and is lazy. It’s not enough to refer to contemporary objects, or to use a bit of contemporary slang: it’s how people spoke, not what they said, that is the hardest thing to get right. It’s within the reach of most authors if they take their characters seriously as historical figures. What I love about Margaret Irwin is that she uses contemporary language perfectly, and when she can’t know how a character might have expressed a certain thing, her blending of Elizabethan syntax and a neutralised, non-1940s vocabulary does just as well.
Elizabeth, Captive Princess begins at the moment that the teenage Edward VI, the succesor to Henry VIII, has died of pneumonia. Elizabeth is summoned by message to come to London to see him before he dies, but, as history tells us, she realises that this is a trap and retires to bed claiming she is ill, and she stays there until she has better information about what is happening in London. Edward’s will has put his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne, to whom the overweeningly powerful Duke of Northumberland has providently married his unpleasant son Guildford Dudley some years earlier, though Jane refuses to live with him or even allow him to be proclaimed as King. The Catholic Mary Tudor – a woman with the authority of being the eldest of Henry VIII’s children – takes the initiative and remarkably raises an army to defeat the Northumberland party by a definitive show of popular and political support to bolster her legal title to the throne. Jane was queen for only 9 days.
This much is well-known history because the drama and brevity of this turbulent handover moment make it very easy to read about and remember. But I’d forgotten the lesser-known details: that Jane wasn’t executed for months, and that Robin Dudley who we all know as Queen Elizabeth’s beloved Earl of Leicester was also Jane’s brother-in-law, though not on her side. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary alongside Elizabeth. I’d also forgotten the astonishing balancing act that Elizabeth has to do while being Mary’s putative heir and also her greatest threat. The temporising, the formal statements that had to keep her alive and also not incite a Protestant rebellion, all her actions taken with the threat of execution hanging over her head: what teenage girl could do this now? Such is the plot of Elizabeth, Captive Princess, and it is deeply satisfying. The known facts fit into place beautifully with her characters’ motivation. Since Elizabeth prevails in history, she must also prevail as a protagonist, and so her enemy has to be reduced. Mary’s religious fanaticism and emotional neediness are a peculiarly uncompelling mixture: Irwin’s Mary is not likeable, even though she’s pitiful, and that has put me off her for years.
But my biggest revelation came at the very end of the novel, when Mary is married to Philip of Spain, and Elizabeth is summoned abruptly late at night to see Mary in her rooms. Elizabeth attends, convinced this will be when Mary ends her to the Tower, and she realises during their interview that someone else is listening behind the screen. Enter Philip, locking eyes with his sister-in-law. Scene.
That’s the way to end a novel with a sequel lined up, and I am boggled that I completely missed this when I was reading and rereading Elizabeth, Captive Princess as a teenager: obviously not very attentively. Naturally I rushed to the internet and discovered that there is a third Elizabeth novel: yikes! I instantly ordered it, brushing away my husband’s faint protest about ordering it from the library, and now I have read it. I had NO IDEA that Philip of Spain lived in England for the first year of his marriage to Mary. So much scope there for foreshadowed drama, what with the Armada coming up later, Francis Drake ransacking his treasure ships and so on. What delicious irony.
Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953) begins with even more of an information dump, because most readers will not at all be up to speed with the late medieval politics of the Holy Roman Empire, the legacy of evangelical Catholicism that Philip inherited from Isabella of Castile, and the odd happenstance that made this most fervently Spanish and Catholic prince of Spain actually half Flemish, blond and not as obviously Hapsburg as his later family members would look. This novel begins as a history book, quite nicely, but once Elizabeth is on the scene, it hurtles back into a thoroughly readable novel about Mary Tudor’s reign, with the will-she, won’t-she tensions over how and why Elizabeth, now Mary’s heir presumptive, stays in favour providing the drama. Philip’s cold-blooded pre-courting of Elizabeth in private interviews while Mary thinks she is about to begin her labour with a baby that never appears is dramatically very effective. It establishes, as if we hadn’t already realised, his character, and it makes the point forcefully that royal marriage was purely political, and that the misfortune of England’s heirs now being all female was actually a terrific source of strength for those who knew how to use it. Mary didn’t: by selling herself off as a wife to her most dangerous royal rival in Europe she placed herself and her husband in an impossible position of being diminished by the other’s royalty and pre-eminence. Without affection or even respect, and with way too much pride on both sides, this was never going to work. Elizabeth did: she used her availability, and by proxy the rule of England, to keep rival states friendly. Nobody knew what she would decide, and so everyone had to play nicely. Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain ends with Mary’s death, Elizabeth’s ecstatic accession, and Robin Dudley’s appointment as Master of the Queen’s Horse. It’s all sunshine and banners and Mary is gone and not regretted in the slightest.
One of the themes in both novels is, naturally, sex. Elizabeth has a near thing with Robin alone with him in his room in the Tower of London, but she goes off the boil rapidly when she imagines a ghost in the same room. Tom Seymour, we are told, quite often in both novels, will never leave her, or be forgotten. I ordered a copy of the first Elizabeth novel, Young Bess (1944) because I had almost no memory of reading it, though I must have done.
Young Bess is about the political education of the Princess Elizabeth in the last years of the reign of her father, when she is canny enough to spot when her beloved stepmother, Queen Catherine, has made a misstep in her handling of the irascible King, and stages a distraction to prevent that queen, too, from being beheaded. Irwin does a very good job of establishing the close relationships between Elizabeth and her younger brother Edward and their swotty cousin Jane, and the (again) pitiful figure of Mary who just seems to want to look after children and have her own, but is stuck in an eternal prison of being Catholic, self-righteous and an heir to the throne. When Henry dies Elizabeth and the Queen escape the palace as fast as they can to the safety of the queen’s home in Chelsea, and this becomes Elizabeth’s home too. But there is a snake in the grass. Tom Seymour, brother of the late queen Jane Seymour, and of the Duke of Somerset, Edward VI’s Lord Protector, was secretly engaged to Catherine Parr before she decided she had no choice but to marry Henry VIII. Some months after the death of the old king he and Catherine marry, and he becomes Elizabeth’s step-father. Depositions by Mrs Ashley, Elizabeth’s governess, state that he was far too intimate with the young teenage Elizabeth, and he was eventually executed by his brother.
From this material Irwin fills in the emotional gaps by making Tom the most glamorous man Elizabeth has ever seen, on whom she has a massive crush, and on whose care and astuteness she has to depend during some dangerous moments in the transition between kings. When he comes to live in her own home, it gets more dangerous, and thrilling, depending on your point of view. Women married early in Tudor times, which we have to accept was normal when we read the disturbing sexual stalking that is clearly happening between Tom and Elizabeth. He insists on romps in her bedroom, and there is much horseplay and shrieking in their nightclothes. Catherine is no fool, and intervenes as best she can by taking part in the romps as a sanitising chaperone. Will she and Elizabeth retain their love for each other when Tom is manipulating them both? But the fourteen-year old Elizabeth is not just a girl with a reputation to protect, she is an heir to the throne, and marriage to heirs was power-play.
Irwin explores this complicated situation by making Elizabeth’s developing political sense the key to how she will behave. Her naturally unstable emotions and need for love and security draw her to Tom, but her sense of self-preservation is kicked into life when she realises that Tom is playing a double game, keeping her tied to him emotionally in case she might become his route to power as well. Irwin convinces us that Elizabeth evades seduction, but very few of the novel’s characters believe this, and the tangle gets way more complicated. The novel ends when Edward VI dies. Tom has been executed. Elizabeth has outfaced her accusers by demanding to be allowed to come to London to prove that she is not pregnant. We’re ready for book 2. But Tom Seymour is a very disturbing ghost in Elizabeth’s past that will affect her decisions about men for the rest of her life.
All three novels have republished several times. The Jean Simmons film of Young Bess from 1953 advanced Elizabeth’s age considerably to make it acceptable for Deborah Kerr’s Elizabeth be embraced by Stewart Grainger’s Tom. This part of history has been told and retold by many other authors. But I’m very happy with Margaret Irwin’s version.
3 thoughts on “Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth novels”
Such quality, Kate, you are right. Our history mistress when we were 13 told us to read Margaret Irwin before the horrors of ‘O’ level GCE began to eat away our time. So I borrowed the Elizabeth trilogy and also The Stranger Prince (about Rupert of the Rhine whom I had never heard of), The Gay Galliard (Mary Queen of Scots),Royal Flush and The Proud Servant. All well worth reading, and I see I have a Penguin copy of Still She Wished For Company sitting unread in my collection.
I didn’t like the Stuart novels quite so much, being fed up to the back teeth with Mary Bloody Queen of Scots (being brought up on Scottish exceptionalist history) but my husband fell into them some years ago so we do have them for revisiting. I’ve also got her biographisation novel That Great Lucifer because I do have a soft spot for Raleigh. DO READ Still She Wished For Company, it is fantastic. Also bleak, whimsical, heartbreaking and beautiful. She was a strange writer in many ways.
What a wonderful reminder of books I love as a young teen but have never revisited. I’m travelling for the next few months but once I’m home it might be time for a reread!