A superficial sweep of the first 30 years of Elizabeth I’s reign, with a focus on her relentless manipulation of marriage as a personal and political tool.
Historical novelist and biographer Weir (Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, 2013, etc.) builds her novel around the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley and the ageless speculation about whether they were lovers. Weir is careful and thorough with her research, so the details she offers about Elizabeth’s constant play on Dudley’s love and desire for power are probably accurate, but the characters fail to feel well-rounded or complex, certainly a tragedy when one is discussing two such rich historical figures as these. The larger backdrop of the queen’s reign is overshadowed by her involvement in the “marriage game” of the title as she strings along not only Dudley, but also most of the eligible princes of Europe. Traumatized by her mother Anne Boleyn’s fate and painfully aware of the irony that for a queen, taking a husband could only lessen her power, Elizabeth vows to be “a queen first, a woman second.” Weir makes frequent mention of the queen’s popularity with her people, but the novel fails to illustrate this convincingly; in fact, the whole novel suffers from a lack of “showing” in place of “telling.” There is little believable romance between Elizabeth and Dudley, and while events like the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada do happen, they are dealt with quickly and sketchily. Maybe Weir seeks to subvert our expectations of Elizabeth’s strength by emphasizing her humanity, but Elizabeth emerges as capricious, vain and not particularly admirable.
It’s hard to be sympathetic for 400 pages of temper tantrums.