19 October, 2010

Elizabeth. Captive Princess, by Margaret Irwin. Book review

First published 1948. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN , 323 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess is the sequel to Young Bess, which I reviewed in March this year. It covers the years from 1553 to 1555, when Elizabeth was aged 19 to 21. All the main characters are historical figures.

In July 1553, Elizabeth receives a touching message summoning her to visit her dying younger brother, King Edward VI. But her political instinct, finely honed during her turbulent childhood and adolescence, warns her of imminent danger. The Regent, John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, wants to rule England through his young daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey, and to do so he will have to imprison and/or execute both Elizabeth and her elder sister Mary. As Mary and Duke Dudley struggle for the throne, Elizabeth is in grave danger from both sides. Even when Mary successfully secures the throne, Elizabeth’s peril is no less, as her popularity attracts Mary’s jealousy and makes her (willingly or otherwise) a focal point for dissenters and rebels. As Mary’s suspicions of her grow, Elizabeth will need all her intelligence and political ability if she is to avoid her mother’s fate on the block.

This is the second in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I. I read and greatly enjoyed the trilogy years ago, and am pleased to see the novels back in print. The writing has a freshness and vivacity that doesn’t pall with time, or with any number of re-readings. No matter how well the modern reader knows the outcome, no-one at the time knew what would happen, and Elizabeth, Captive Princess brilliantly captures the uncertainty and the dizzying speed of events. This is particularly true of the crammed nine days of Jane Grey’s brief reign, which covers the first third of the novel.

As with Young Bess, the characterisation is splendid. Elizabeth’s cleverness and charisma, her unpredictability, her courage, her quick wits and shrewd judgment, all leap to life on the page. It is easy to see how she alternately exasperated and charmed those who had to deal with her, and to admire her remarkable skill in treading a dangerous path with hardly a wrong step – a skill that would stand her in good stead in her later career.

The other people in the story are no less individual, with their characters revealed through their actions and words as well as by others’ assessments of them. Although their lives touch Elizabeth’s – difficult not to, for anyone involved in English high politics in the mid 1550s – they are the chief actors in their own dramas, not bit-players in hers. All have their own ambitions and failings, their own past history and their own hopes for the future. Even while admiring Elizabeth, the reader can still respect Mary, who begins her reign with courage, bright optimism and honest good intentions, can feel for scholarly Jane Grey earnestly trying to puzzle out right and wrong among the brutal contradictions and compromises of power politics, and can sympathise with all three as they are pushed into deadly conflicts with each other that are not of their making or desire. Even the minor characters, like Elizabeth’s ex-tutor Roger Ascham, now a would-be diplomat and courtier, and homely Doctor Turner, are individuals following their own paths as best they can.

The rapid political and religious reversals of the 1550s form the background to the novel, and there is a real sense of a time of bewildering and yet also exhilarating social change. For those with nerve, ability, energy and luck new opportunities were opening up; but for those caught on the wrong side of change the consequences could be unpleasant, even fatal.

Elizabeth has an instinctive understanding of and empathy for other people. Unlike Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, both of whom are concerned with absolute right – and absolutely convinced that they are right - Elizabeth recognises and accepts the complexity and contradictions in English society. Her concern is not to eliminate differences of opinion, but to manage them so that disparate people can get on with their own lives more or less in harmony, or at any rate with a minimum of destructive conflict.

Vivid, powerful portrayal of Tudor England and the people who shaped it.


Rick said...

It helped that she had great material to work with. The theatricality of the culture seemed to make people live big, a bit larger than ordinary life, like Hollywood but for real stakes.

Sometimes all too literally ...

Carla said...

All too literally indeed, alas. Is the larger-than-life aspect inherent in the times, do you think, or is it a perception derived from, say, the surviving literature (not to mention generations of subsequent screenwriters, poets and novelists)? Henry VIII was larger than life in all senses of the phrase, and his matrimonial entanglements are in the you-couldn't-make-it-up category, but there were dynastic struggles, religious conflicts and clashes of ideas in other times that would also be great material. Regardless, Margaret Irwin does a splendid job; the novel reads as vividly as if it were all happening now (and not all Tudor novels have that spark, even though they all use the same material).

Kathryn Warner said...

It's good to see classic histfict being made easily available again!

Carla said...

Comment from Rick:
Probably both! The literature has shaped our perception, but who wrote the literature?

Here is a culture whose outstanding contribution was theater, and the Elizabethan theater to boot, 'big' even by stage standards. Marlowe shows that it wasn't just Will.

The Book of Common Prayer was also written for performance, in effect, and in a way even the King James Bible.

So I would guess that Tudor era people were a bit more flamboyant than, say, their medieval or 18th century counterparts, because they lived with such an acute sense of being on camera.

(Note from Carla: I thought I had approved the above comment but it seems to have disappeared instead, so re-pasted manually from the notification)

Carla said...

Kathryn - Indeed it is. It's a great pity when books like these go out of print.

Rick - Marlowe at the time was a bigger star than Shakespeare, no? And might have remained so if not for the unfortunate or dastardly (insert conspiracy theory of choice) incident in Deptford. Hard to say whether the new medium of theatre influenced people's behaviour - I have to say I can't see Henry VIII being influenced by anything much - or whether it altered the way said behaviour was transmitted to us. I daresay Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II and the Devil's Brood were equally flamboyant in their time, but medieval chroniclers don't really compare with Marlowe or Shakespeare. Another aspect may be the post-medieval rise of the feeling that people make, or at least influence, their own fates. That's very recognisable to us and tends to magnify personalities.

Rick said...

Thanks for rescuing my comment!

I am thinking not so much that theater influenced the culture as the culture created the theater. Henry played his part not only with his personality but all those court spectacles.

The theatricality probably stems in part from just what you said, the 'Renaissance' idea of shaping your own fate.

Medieval chroniclers indeed - that is why Hank and Ellie and the boyz had to wait for James Goldman to bring them back to life.

Marlowe hit the big time much faster than Shakespeare - if all we had was Shakespeare's first half dozen or so plays he would would be a much lesser figure.

I don't know whether their contemporary popularity can really be compared in the absence of box office figures - Shakespeare hit stride later and was around a lot longer.

But I seem to recall that the most popular of all Elizabethan plays wasn't by either of them, but a farrago called A Spanish Tragedy.

Gabriele Campbell said...

No wonder there's a bunch of operas about Elizabeth and her 'love affairs' - I got a few in my collection. Some of them are on DVD with those splendid Elizabethan costumes.

Though the libretti seldom have much to do with history. ;)

Carla said...

Rick - Henry's liking for dressing up as Robin Hood etc may be part of the same process. Perhaps the public playhouses were some sort of adaptation of the court masque?

How do we know which plays were the most popular, out of interest?

Gabriele - Elizabeth's 'love affairs' remain an enduringly popular theme in novels to this day :-)

Rick said...

How do we know which plays were the most popular, out of interest?

Good question, and I don't know the answer. Possibly some actual theatrical accounts have survived, though whether they'd be any more trustworthy than Hollywood box office numbers is also a good question.

In modern times a long production run indicates a successful play, but I don't think the Elizabethan stage worked that way; my impression is that they kept new material coming.

So most of what we know probably amounts to buzz - 'best of' lists by various individuals, gossip, and so on.

For example, someone bashes a person he calls 'Shake-scene,' and calls him 'a tiger wrapt in a player's hide,' a riff off a line in one of the Henry VI plays. This is apparently the first reference to Shakespeare as a playwright. (And an awkward one for all the Oxford et al. cranks.)

Carla said...

Rick - Who was it that called Shakespeare 'a tiger wrapt in a player's hide'? That's a great quote! Isn't there a line referring to Margaret of Anjou as 'tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide', or something similar? Presumably that was the source. What was so tiger-ish about Shakespeare, I wonder?

Rick said...

I think his name was Robert Greene, and his snide comment about Shakespeare is his chief claim to fame.

My verification word: exigling