Spinsters, Periods, and English Royal History (Triple Play Book Review)

Yes, I know Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of the Roses were not directly related, but these three were from the same author and two can be read sequentially. Of the three, I only read one in its entirety. Here’s a threefer review, with a tiny rant about apparent anachronisms at the end.
The Wars of the RosesThe Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and can usually read biographies just fine, but I couldn’t stick with this one. It covers a lot of time and involves a multitude of people, all of whom are named Richard or Henry or Robert or Alice or Elizabeth and are interrelated in convoluted ways. This gets even more confusing when titles are added. I’d see a reference to de Vere doing something, and then to Oxford doing something, and to Lord Richard saying something, and go wait a minute, who the heck are all these people again? and flip back to recall that they are all the same guy. Add in the fact that titles were either passed down father to son or yanked away and given to someone else if the king got pissy, so you have multiple Oxfords, and it’s just a royal noble mess. I know it’s a nobility thing and an English thing but please have mercy on my poor commoner Yank brain. Call him Oxford or call him Lord Richard or call him de Vere, I don’t care, but pick one and stick with it.

I chose to be too lazy to finish the book. Other readers loved it, so maybe I’ll try again someday, particularly since these events inspired Martin’s ASOIAF series. Other readers also recommended The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, so I’ll give that one a try.

Bookshelves: history, merry-olde-england, i-am-an-anglophile, abandoned, well-i-tried

The Lady ElizabethThe Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I fairly enjoyed this one. Considering her scholarship, Weir’s fiction writing is pretty pedestrian romance novel stuff–lots of telling as opposed to showing, plenty of head-hopping, and people are always exclaiming or lying or remonstrating or reminding as opposed to simply saying something–but it’s still readable.

This is the story of Elizabeth I before she took she throne, as her father’s daughter, as Anne Boleyn’s bastard, and as sister to King Edward VI and to Queen Mary I. Sometimes her precocity as a child had me rolling my eyes, but I also understand she really was both very clever and highly intelligent (although that could be a relative thing, as the intellectual capacity of women was not explored or held in much regard at that time). Some reviewers took exception to a series of events such that the Virgin Queen was–ahem–not actually a virgin, but the rumors had gone around, and building upon that to make the story a bit juicier is poetic license and it worked for me here. I appreciated the devotion to her deep affection for Catherine Parr, and the detail of Wyatt’s Rebellion that landed her in the Tower of London, fully expecting every day to receive word that she’d be sent to the block. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Anne Boleyn’s “A” pendant as worn by Elizabeth in the Whitehall family portrait; I’d never have noticed that otherwise and it was a great scene.

Bookshelves: just-barely-not-a-romance, merry-olde-england, historical-fiction, i-am-an-anglophile

The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth IThe Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to Weir’s fiction, Good Queen Bess gave Robert Dudley the most extreme and prolonged case of blue balls in recorded history.

The title is not misleading. The focus is on romantic games rather than Elizabeth’s actual queenship and is disappointing for that reason alone. The Virgin Queen was constantly pressed by her council to take a husband and produce heirs, and constantly told her council to stuff it, while constantly playing suitors against each other to keep their home countries allied to England. Well and good, that’s politics for you, but the constant yes-I-might-marry-you-but-no-I-might-marry-this-other-dude-oh-no-I-will-not-submit-myself-and-my-realm-to-any-man-no-wait-yes-I-really-might-marry-this one-oh-no-I-can’t-possibly got really…fricking…boring. Over and over, the same princes or kings or dukes around and around like a carousel, the same conversations every time, with poor Lord Robert straining against his codpiece and dangling from her little finger through all of it, lather, rinse, repeat.

After 140 pages of this my eyes were glazing over so I skipped ahead to Mary Stuart’s arrival on the scene. That devolved into more man-juggling, so I skipped ahead again to the Babington Plot, the Spanish armada, and Robert Dudley’s death, which according to this book is the end of Elizabeth’s story because, you know, women only have stories as they relate to men and not because they are real, actual RULERS, enacting policy, influencing art and culture, dealing with councils and Parliament and threats of war and assassination plots, handling economic, religious, and international political issues. We’re just concerned with whether she was getting any.

I did learn that Elizabeth had one of the first known wristwatches, a timepiece set into a bracelet. I bet it was stunning.

Bookshelves: historical-fiction, just-barely-not-a-romance, merry-olde-england, couldn’t-really-read-it, i-am-an-anglophile

AND NOW FOR A BIT ON ANACHRONISMS

Anachronisms always annoy me, and it must be pretty glaring for my non-historian self to spot. Not items or clothing, but words. As Robert Dudley was thinking Elizabeth was “sexy” my mind screeched to halt; Mirriam-Webster says “sexy” came into use in 1896, a lot earlier than I would have guessed but still more than 300 years after Dudley was supposedly applying it to Elizabeth Tudor.

I got somewhat schooled when I bristled at the use of the phrase “stay single.” That sounded too modern to me, but my historian son pointed me to a quote attributed to Elizabeth that uses the word–“I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married.” I’m unable to find if that’s apocryphal or not, and historians can’t seem to agree on stuff like anyway. I did learn that a “spinster” was, ca. 1300’s, an older, unmarried woman of no independent means who supported herself by spinning. By the 17th century it referred generally to any woman still not married past the usual age for it.

The other one that annoyed me was the reference to Elizabeth “having her period.” I can’t find anything on it, but other history-minded book-loving peeps agree with me that the phrase is anachronistic. One friend said the earliest citation she could find with that usage was mid-1800s.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Weir is right and I’m wrong, and all the other historical fiction I’ve read was using phrases like “unwed” and “being indisposed” and “moon time” to set atmosphere. But it remains that they felt out of time to me. If anyone can shed further light on these things for me, please do!

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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