Queen Elizabeth and Sir Robert Dudley
The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory
New York: 2005
It is autumn, 1558, and the church bells of England are ringing to announce the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, once declared his bastard child when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was convicted of treason, then beheaded. Now she is 25, and she is queen. Although she lacks her mother's provocative beauty, she has inherited Anne Boleyn's charm, her pale and willowy appearance. She has her father's ginger-colored hair and his stubborn pride.
She has also inherited a financially destitute kingdom, and the same dilemma that plagued her father throughout his rule--the need for a male heir to carry on the Tudor family line.
The answer to her plight would seem to be an easy one as she is infatuated with her childhood friend, Sir Robert Dudley. It matters little that the Dudley family's reputation has been sullied by claims of treason and the executions of his father and brother as Elizabeth's family line was also tainted by the execution of her mother. There is a far more serious matter preventing a marriage between Elizabeth and Robert: Amy Robsart, Dudley's wife.
Dudley is expected to spend his time at court. Following Elizabeth's accession in 1558, she appoints Dudley the Master of the Horse. This position makes him a dignitary of the court and member of the ministry, a peer and privy councillor. He is in charge of everything that involves the court's horses, as well as the hounds, stables, couch houses, stud, mews, and kennels.
If Elizabeth wants to ride, he must see that she has the proper mount, and Elizabeth rides often, particularly with her Master of the Horse. If there is a procession, hunt, visiting dignitaries, the Master of the Horse makes all decisions regarding how the day will proceed. As Elizabeth is a new monarch, there are many processions and visiting dignitaries, particularly since she is also unmarried, which means Sir Robert Dudley is responsible for preparing his lover to look her best for the representatives of men who want to court her, which could not possibly have been the most comfortable situation for a man.
The Social Plight of Robert Dudley's Wife
While Dudley is at court, his wife, Amy Robsart is shuffled from one place to place, living with relatives, friends, acquaintances, when all she really wants is to build a home with her husband. Not just a house, but a home where they can raise a family and grow old together. In the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, Dudley assigns his wife the task of finding a home that would represent the importance of his station in court, but Amy fails to meet his expectations. She wants a farm, one that is close to her family. Dudley wants a castle fit for a visiting queen.
Amy becomes increasingly aware of the many rumors circulating about her husband's relationship with Elizabeth, but remains steadfast in her belief in his love for her, stubbornly denying any insinuations of an affair that she might overhear. Her marriage to Robert Dudley was not the typical arranged marriage. They married young, but they married for love, and she believes in her heart that this love will be enough to save her marriage.
As the length of time between visits from her husband continues to grow, and his attention to her needs begins to wane, Amy grows anxious and gradually suspects there might be some truth to the rumors, but her anxiety only makes her more determined to find some way to save her marriage. She begins to realize that there is the possibility that her husband will ask for an annulment of their marriage and decides she will refuse any attempt to end her own relationship with Robert Dudley.
Dudley and Elizabeth have grown so close that he now makes all decisions regarding her daily activities and is beginning to overstep his boundaries in political decisions, as well. At first, Elizabeth appears to be willing to accept this behavior. She asks him to move into the rooms adjoining her own so they can meet privately each night without interruption, though this clearly confirms the affair in the minds of those around her.
Gradually, Dudley's ambition gets the best of him. Elizabeth, whose mother was beheaded when she was a child, is aware at all times that she must maintain control, that she cannot allow any man to rule over her as this could potentially put her in danger of losing her power, or her life. When Dudley makes a comment about his own power in the court and repeats the same words Elizabeth used when she was told that she was queen--"This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes."--Elizabeth's worst fears about Dudley's ambitious nature are confirmed.
The Murder of Amy Robsart
Shortly after, Amy Robsart is murdered. Her neck is broken by an intruder who carries her down the stairs to make it appear as if she has fallen, carefully arranges her dress to leave a certain amount of doubt as to whether or not it is an accident, then places Dudley's signet ring in her pocket.
There is an immediate investigation and Dudley is cleared of all wrong-doing by law, but in the minds of the people he is guilty of murdering his wife. This destroys any chance that he will ever be able to achieve his greatest goal--to marry the queen and rule by her side. For Dudley, however, there is an even greater mystery--why did his wife have his ring? He tries to deny the obvious, but there can only be one answer, one person who planned the murder of his wife, and the placement of the ring is a message, warning him against his ambitious nature.
Considering the many characters involved in this story, Gregory's first challenge was to choose the person who would tell the story. She decided to tell the story through the voices of the three primary players in this love triangle--Queen Elizabeth, Sir Robert Dudley, and Amy Robsart. Elizabeth and Dudley are the most logical choices, but when she chose to interject the voice of Amy Robsart into the story, Gregory made a decision that was pure genius.
As Elizabeth and Dudley have clearly wronged Amy through their public romance, Amy Robsart immediately becomes a sympathetic character, a victim in the minds of the readers, just as she was in the minds of the public when she was alive. While she was alive, the Virgin Queen was known as the whore, Sir Robert Dudley was viewed with jealousy, envy, resentment and contempt, which placed him in a very dangerous political position, and Amy Robsart was his pious, obedient...neglected wife who was emotionally abused so badly by her husband that eventually, people were embarrassed to be seen with her.
The Characterization of Queen Elizabeth I
I was disappointed in the character of Elizabeth. I have also researched her life for many years and although it could be said that she was naive, I believe Gregory made her appear weak, and a weak woman would not have made the decisions Elizabeth made to preserve her claim to the throne. The title is catchy, but also a bit misleading. Elizabeth did not take on the persona of the Virgin Mary until much later in her reign. In these early years, she was known as "the whore." The way that Elizabeth is presented in this novel does not make her a sympathetic character.
Dudley's ambitions may have also been a bit overplayed. He certainly would have had a bit more control while in front of the court considering the deaths of his father and brother. On the other hand, Dudley's remorse over the death of his wife felt very real and sad, almost pathetic as he gradually realizes how cruelly he treated the one woman who was faithful to him beyond all reason.
Like most writers of historical fiction, Phillipa Gregory loves her research. This is obvious in the carefully detailed accounting of Elizabeth's early reign. On the other hand, Gregory is, first and foremost, a storyteller. The nature of her craft demands that she apply her creative inspiration to the historical facts, mixing the two like a cook searching for the perfect ingredients to entice her readers to nibble, bite, then eat the cake whole and come back begging for more. The details behind the death of Amy Robsart are often disputed by historians to this day, so Gregory is speculating when Dudley realizes at the end of the novel who it was that orchestrated the death of his wife. Gregory explains this in an author's note at the end of the novel. There is certainly evidence to support her conclusions, but she does plant a device in the story to assist her readers in agreeing with her.
Gregory also portrays Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, in a much gentler manner than many other writers of historical fiction and directors of contemporary Elizabethan films. I believe Mary was angry about the shameful humiliating divorce and subsequent death of her mother, but as Gregory seems to show, Mary tended to unleash her anger on the religious authorities of the time who had refused to support her mother. I suspect she realized Elizabeth was far too wise to plot against her, particularly in the early days of her reign. She shared the same childhood fears as Elizabeth, never knowing when their temperamental father might order their execution on a whim, and I believe Gregory is accurate in showing a certain closeness shared between these two women.
On a scale of 1 to 5 for the steaminess factor in this novel, although I do not believe the sex scenes were necessary, there are graphic scenes in this novel. They do not, however, overwhelm the plot, so I would rate the novel with a three.
As for the quality of the novel, I did find the plot captivating, though I do not believe the character of Elizabeth is portrayed consistently throughout the novel. On a scale of 1 to 5, I would rate this novel a four for quality of work.