Thursday, November 17, 2011

RIVAL TO THE QUEEN by Carolly Erickson

Years ago while visiting friends in Warwick, UK, I went out for an early morning stroll. Not far from their house I saw an interesting-looking old church, and, being a tourist, I wandered in. In a side chapel I spotted two tombs topped by splendid full-color effigies. These turned out to be the likenesses of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Lettice Knollys.

I was enthralled. A lover of all things Tudor, I knew that Leicester was for many years the boyfriend of Queen Elizabeth I. I knew he had been accused (and acquitted) of murdering his first wife in hopes that, once she was out of the way, the queen would marry him and make him king. I knew that when he finally gave up all hope of marrying power, he thumbed his nose at Elizabeth by marrying her beautiful cousin. I had no idea, however, that Robert and Lettice were entombed just down the street from my friends' house.

Nor did I expect to find snarky 17th-century doggerel on a wall plaque across from their tombs, extolling Lettice as once "fairest in the land," and going on to describe her as
She that in her youth hath bene
Darling to the Maiden Quene,
Till she was content to quitt
Her favour for her favouritt.
The 38-line poem, signed "Gervas Clifton," is headed by this inscription: "Upon the death of the excellent and pious Lady Lettice, Countess of Leicester, who died upon Christmas-day in the morning, 1634."

Brief explanation: Lettice, Elizabeth's first cousin once removed, attended the queen. At court she met the queen's "favouritt," Robert Dudley. Eventually Lettice's husband and Robert's wife both died, and Lettice and Robert married secretly. The queen found out, of course, and all hell broke loose. From then on Elizabeth wanted nothing to do with Lettie, though she continued to welcome Robert at court.

You'll learn all that and more - much more - in Carolly Erickson's newish historical romance (2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback and Kindle) about Lettice Knollys. Some of what you will learn is factual. Some is invented, but possible (Lettie's adventure in Frankfurt, for example). Some is distorted through Lettice's lens (e.g., the extremely unfavorable portrait of Elizabeth) - and justifiably, since the story is told entirely from her first-person viewpoint. Some is just plain wrong (e.g., the account of Devereux's downfall), as you'll know if you've read Erickson's own history of the era, The First Elizabeth (1983).

I appreciate Rival to the Queen for bringing to life a nearly forgotten but important woman whose very long life spanned the reigns of Henry VIII (who may have been her grandfather), Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I, and James I. I appreciate it for putting faces on entrancing rapscallions like the Earl of Leicester and his stepson Devereux, and for making Tudor political intrigues slightly easier to follow. I was uncomfortable, however, with Lettice's mindless and perpetual attraction to ill-behaved men, and the way all female characters including the queen seemed to think of little besides their own beauty and their ill-fated love affairs. I wished Erickson had included more details about daily life at court and at home. And as for the scene where Lettice's brother, Frank, plucks a drowning girl out of the sea and discovers ... oh, I won't spoil the surprise. But it was really cheesy.

Maybe I should stop reading historical romances.

I did love Erickson's sly humor in the Epilogue, however. Lettie is in her nineties, and once more she takes up her pen to complete the story she had abandoned 33 years previously. Her great-grandson Gervase pays her a visit:
I must note here that Gervase ... is not a very good poet, though he fancies himself one. His verses are stale.... I am not a poet, but if I were, I would at least attempt to be original.

Gervase has attempted to write my epitaph in verse. He takes undue pride in his few lines. Pray God that when the hour comes, and I am laid in my grave, someone will have the good sense to prevent those lines from coming to light.

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