Queen Elizabeth I, who remained unmarried and childless, made her surrogate child’s life miserable, according to Barnhill’s second novel about her Boleyn ancestors.
Elizabeth takes a personal interest in the upbringing of Mary Shelton, her second cousin on the Boleyn side, raised at court after the deaths of her parents. Set during the period shortly before Mary, Queen of Scots is deposed, and leading up to the discovery of an alleged assassination plot instigated by papal bull and led by Queen Mary and her Catholic adherents, the pace is ponderous, as life in Elizabeth’s court is examined in exhaustive and exhausting detail. The queen’s wardrobe is painstakingly described, as are her beauty regimen (plenty of whiteface), sleep rituals (assisted by Mary Shelton’s specially brewed elixirs), and her long-term unconsummated but jealous liaison with “Sweet Robin,” the royal nickname for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Aside from the Catholic plot and other matters of state, which are kept largely in the background, the main conflict concerns Elizabeth’s nuptial plans for Mary Shelton. Mary prefers handsome Sir John Skydemore, a widower and father of five who is not noble enough (at least in lineage) to suit Elizabeth’s lofty ambitions for her ward. If a foreign, alliance-cementing prince can’t be found (and at 38, the queen has not lost hope of snaring one of those herself), Edward de Vere, the powerful Earl of Oxford, is the queen’s choice for Mary. However, in addition to being too old, Edward is a known rake seemingly bent on compromising Mary’s virtue. As Mary and John grow increasingly reckless, Oxford, stung by Mary’s rejection, plots her downfall. As the celibacy the queen imposes on herself and others takes its toll, dramatic tension is finally introduced.
Elizabeth’s court in miniature.