The Lady Elizabeth - Alison Weir - 16/05/08

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We all know about the glorious reign of Elizabeth I ... but what of the young girl whose mother was beheaded and who grew up to be a queen against all the odds?

Historian-cum-novelist Alison Weir, an expert on all things Tudor, has turned the spotlight on the formative years of England's most illustrious monarch and come up with a novel to rival the courtly intrigues of the venerable Philippa Gregory.

Weir's new take on the Tudor shenanigans opens in 1536 as the young Mary Tudor (still years away from her 'bloody' reign) arrives at Hatfield Palace to break the news to the two-year-old Elizabeth that her mother has been 'put to death.'

It is always difficult for any author to attempt to peer into the mind of such a young child but Weir bravely sketches the rather touching picture of a young Elizabeth struggling to accept her mother's violent demise at the hands of her beloved father while simultaneously regretting the loss of her 'princess' title.

This all-too-human view of a wilful but inately intelligent royal child, who revels in being the daughter of a massively powerful and magnificent king despite her 'bastard' status, is set against the darker side of court life where back-biting, insincerity, plotting and jealousies are the order of the day.

At the centre of the newly titled Lady Elizabeth's universe is Henry VIII around whom revolves an endless tide of patronage and favour, and whose displeasure can mean possible imprisonment, ruin ... and death.

Throughout the course of Elizabeth's tumultuous childhood and teenage years we also meet her half sister Mary, at first a loving sibling, but then as queen, a lethal threat.

We witness how the scheming Spaniards manipulate the devoutly Catholic Mary and convince her that Elizabeth is not only a rival because of her youth and beauty but also a dangerous Protestant who could rally followers of the 'new religion' and overthrow her sister.

Along the way, Weir also introduces her readers to the little known and rather rigidly sad little boy King Edward VI who was the apple of his father's eye but died as a teenager long before he could reach his evident royal potential.

But perhaps one of the most alluring and well-drawn characters is the politically and sexually ambitious Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane and a man who is fatally addicted to danger.

Weir takes his dalliance with the young Elizabeth to bounds that have never before been imagined and in turn to an interlude that is perhaps the most implausible in this otherwise thoroughly entertaining and basically factual account.

But, all in all, this is a fascinating and sympathetic imagining of the red-headed girl who used her wit and her wiles to survive the early and dangerously volatile years of a life in which imprisonment and death were only an indiscreet whisper away.

As well as using to good effect her father's regal glare, Elizabeth also inherited her mother's enigmatic and seductive charms which helped to engender the love and loyalty of both her counsellors and her people and which, in the end, saw her through to the end of her long reign.

Weir admits in her Author's Note that, as a historian, she knows she has taken some huge liberties with the facts (no guessing which one in particular!) but one can understand that, as a novelist, she has more than enjoyed the heady freedom to overstep the mark a little!

And so artistic licence and a thorough knowledge of the Tudor period and its principal protagonists prove an irresistible combination. A super book from a super author!

(Hutchinson, hardback, 12.99)