11 March, 2010

Young Bess, by Margaret Irwin. Book review

First published 1944. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402229961, uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher. 381 pages.

Young Bess is the first in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I. It covers the years 1545-1533, when Elizabeth is aged 12-19, and focuses on the scandal surrounding her relationship with Thomas Seymour. All the main characters are historical figures.

Life at the royal court of England in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII is a risky business. The King, now grossly obese, onto his sixth wife and in failing health, is an unpredictable and bad-tempered tyrant. His younger daughter Elizabeth (Bess) is all too well aware that he killed her mother, Anne Boleyn. A highly intelligent twelve-year-old, she already understands the necessity of learning to navigate the dangerous undercurrents of political intrigue, and the fatal consequences of getting it wrong. She loves her new stepmother, kind Catherine Parr, as a mother, and is delighted to go to live with her after Henry’s death. But soon Catherine marries her old love, the dashing and handsome Thomas (Tom) Seymour, uncle of Bess’s half-brother the child-king Edward. Bess, now fourteen and just entering adolescence, is dangerously attracted to him and he to her. Tom is resentful of his elder brother’s stranglehold on government, and eager to gain a share of power for himself. Whether Tom’s interest in her is due to love, lust, ambition or all three, Bess is about to learn a tragic lesson in the perils of power and love that will shape the rest of her life.

I first read Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth trilogy many years ago, and it is just as fresh and vivid now as it was then. I am delighted to see it back in print. What draws me back to this trilogy time and again is the outstanding characterisation, not only of Bess but of the other characters as well. Everyone is an individual, with their own hopes, desires and all-too-human failings, portrayed in a way that is sympathetic and yet also clear-eyed. Bess, of course, is the centrepiece. Mercurial and charismatic, clever and yet na├»ve, still a child in her egotistical vanity but showing signs of the woman she will become, she attracts and exasperates the other characters (and the reader) in equal measure. In his much later biography of Elizabeth, historian David Starkey comments that the Seymour affair was when Elizabeth grew up, and in this masterly novel you can watch it happen.

Tom Seymour blazes across the pages like a comet, handsome, adventurous, courageous and careless, living up to Elizabeth’s famous epithet, “…..a man of much wit and very little judgement.” (Whether she actually said it is immaterial; it sums him up perfectly, at least as he appears here). His eldest brother Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, is a bundle of entirely believable contradictions; an idealist who cares about justice for the common people yet thinks nothing of demolishing churches in his desire to amass yet more property, a stern aesthete holding the supreme power of government who is terribly henpecked by his acquisitive wife. King Edward VI attracts sympathy as a frail and lonely boy pushed onto the throne too young – until he demonstrates his share of the Tudor ruthlessness.

Second only to the characterisation is the prose style, which is a delight. Lively, economical and witty, people and events are boldly sketched in a few evocative phrases. On King Henry, “Terrible, jovial, at his nod the greatest heads in the kingdom fell, struck by Jove’s thunderbolt – and then he seemed astonished and annoyed that he was not sufficiently a god to put them on again.” On attitudes to Somerset’s reforms, “Let him try out his fool notions on religion if he must; but property, that was different, that was sacred.” On a noble Scottish lightweight, “He insisted on marriage to either of the Princesses, Elizabeth or Mary (he hadn’t seen either and didn’t mind which) as his price; and was fobbed off instead with the usual promise of Anne of Cleves – a promise that nobody, least of all the lady in question, intended to keep.” On Tom Seymour, “It wasn’t until he had left that Tom remembered the prime motive of his visit, which was to consider his nephew’s kidnapping. Well, that could wait.”

I wonder if Tom’s opinion of Somerset’s German mercenaries might owe at least as much to the circumstances of the 1940s when the book was published than to the 1540s when it is set, and one or two of the characters’ comments about the future, although great fun, are perhaps a little too much of a nod and a wink to the reader (“‘If this goes on,’ said Tom when he heard of it, ‘in another hundred years they will find the King himself guilty of high treason and cut off his head’”). But these nods to the future aside, the overall effect of the novel is of having opened a window onto Tudor England in all its argumentative, colourful, contradictory life. This is a time of rapid social change, as new lands and new knowledge challenge the old certainties and open up both danger and opportunity. Young Bess captures the energy and the sense that anything might happen. No matter how well you know Elizabeth’s story (and I would guess that if you found your way here you probably know it pretty well), the novel manages to make it as exciting and uncertain as it must have been for the characters at the time.

A powerful portrayal of Elizabeth’s teenage years and her relationship with Tom Seymour, told in elegant prose and with superb characterisation.


Bernita said...

Yes, I have it, and your review is accurate and excellent.

Rick said...

I have heard of Margaret Irwin, but never before even knew that this book existed. Given my interests that might seem odd. But even stranger is that it had an enormous influence on me without me knowing it.

The 1953 Jean Simmons / Stewart Granger movie 'Young Bess' is based on the book. I saw it on TV when I was a kid, and it obviously lurks in the mental background of Catherine of Lyonesse.

As a final oddity, while I remembered the movie, I didn't know the title till I caught it again a few years ago, a definite Wow! experience.

So I probably should go read the book!

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you. It's an excellent novel.

Rick - yes, you probably should read the book! I think you'll enjoy it. I don't think I knew there was a film of it until now (certainly don't ever recall seeing it), so that makes us even :-) Sourcebooks has just published a reissue on your side of the Pond (hence my ARC), so you should have no trouble finding a copy. The other two books in the trilogy are just as good, and I believe Sourcebooks are reissuing those as well later this year or next.

I thought of Elizabeth and Tom Seymour in the context of your Catherine, her childhood in exile (foreign exile in her case, as opposed to Elizabeth's intermittent internal exile) and her dashing Admiral. You came up with a more benign ending than real life did, though. For which I hope your Catherine is suitably grateful :-)

Meghan said...

This sounds interesting, but I wonder how it will compare to my favorite book on the subject I, Elizabeth?

FYI: (I think) Sharon Kay Penman is also doing a book on her. That should be a good read as well!

Rick said...

You know what they say about the gratitude of princes. If she were really grateful she'd get out on her street corner and hustle us both up a contract.

And the really grateful one should be William de Havilland, Earl of Avalon, who gets redhead and kingdom, while Tom Seymour got the ax. (And from his own bro, too.)

A friend did thumbnail him as 'better Tom Seymour,' which was not conscious intent, but basically true. A little d'Artagnan, and a little Old Nick, just the balance that Seymour was lacking.

There is a contemporary account that lists his outward impressive qualities, then says, 'yet somewhat empty of matter.' I love how we now use substance in that exact sense. I wonder how English speakers of 2500 will put it?

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm pretty much Tudored out at the moment, but I'll keep those in mind for when all three have been reissued.

Carla said...

Meghan - I like Margaret Irwin's trilogy much more than I, Elizabeth, which I didn't get on with. You might think quite differently!

Rick - Well, being fictional may cramp Catherine's style somewhat when it comes to contract negotiations :-)

Agreed about William, who does seem to have got a spectacularly good deal! Can you shipwreck him on a barren island for a few months, or have him captured by pirates, just to even the score?

Yes, I came across that comment about Tom Seymour somewhere - who was it who said it? I can't remember - and thought it fitted very well. Plenty of style, but not enough substance. Elizabeth had both.

Gabriele - they are well worth reading. This is probably my favourite fictional portrayal of Elizabeth, with the possible exception of Legacy. Have you seen the discussion over on HFO, where someone has observed that you can get Tudored-out on the mediocre but the classic novels retain their appeal? I think I agree with that.

Constance Brewer said...

Sounds like an interesting perspective to read from. I like the historical events from different eyes.

Carla said...

Constance - it's an excellent book, well worth a read.

Rick said...

Can you shipwreck him on a barren island for a few months, or have him captured by pirates, just to even the score?

Well, he IS a pirate, or at any rate a gentleman of the corso, close enough. Does it count that he has to take a pass on the Age of Exploration?

with the possible exception of Legacy

Que ???

Carla said...

Rick - I think we'll just accept that William de Havilland is a very fortunate man :-)

Legacy by Susan Kay. Excellent novel of Elizabeth with her complex psychology and even more complex relationships with Robin Dudley and Cecil. It's out of print now - I got a secondhand copy recently - and I think Sourcebooks may be planning to reissue it in the US fairly soon. One to look out for if they do. I'll review it here when I get around to it.

Rick said...

Very fortunate would be getting published!

Carla said...

Now there's a philosophical conundrum :-) Do fictional characters know whether the book they are in is published, and do they mind?

Rick said...

I think of fictional characters without readers as rather like gods without worshippers - they gradually fade away into nothingness.

Carla said...

Not a bad analogy