Friday, April 2, 2010

Elizabeth's women - Tracy Borman

There are countless biographies of Elizabeth I. There have been books about Elizabeth as a politician, an icon of art & poetry, her influence as a literary figure. There was even a book called Elizabeth I, CEO. There have been many books about Elizabeth’s relationships with men, her favourites & advisers like Leicester, Cecil & Walsingham & her suitors, Philip of Spain & the Duc d’Alencon. There have been hundreds of novels. I always loved Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess & the movie made from it with Jean Simmons & Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour. What a pity Seymour was really so sleazy, nothing at all like lovely, noble Stewart Granger in the movie. Oh well, real life is rarely like the movies. *

Tracy Borman’s new book concentrates on Elizabeth’s relationships with women. There are chapters on Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, her stepmothers, cousins the Grey sisters, Margaret Douglas & Mary, Queen of Scots. Rivals such as Douglas Sheffield & Lettice Knollys & her servants & ladies-in-waiting. I’m not sure how true the subtitle, The hidden story of the Virgin Queen, is as all these women have been part of Elizabeth’s story in every biography I’ve read. Several have their own biographies & there have been lots of novels written about them, too. Does anyone else remember My Enemy, the Queen by Jean Plaidy about Lettice Knollys? I loved that book. However, it’s an interesting idea to bring all their stories together in one book, & Tracy Borman does an excellent job of telling Elizabeth’s story through her relationships with these women.

Many of these women, her servants & ladies of the court, had a more intimate relationship with the Queen than anyone else. They were with her every minute of the day, she was rarely alone. They dressed her, washed her, entertained her & often slept in her bedchamber. They had enormous influence, which probably accounts for their willingness to serve at Court, as they were often poorly paid & lived in very basic accommodation. They often paid dearly for that privilege. Lady Mary Sidney, sister of Robert Dudley, nursed Elizabeth through smallpox but caught the disease herself, was left horribly disfigured & left Court to live in the country. During the perilous times of Mary I’s reign, when Elizabeth’s life was often in danger, her governess, Kat Ashley, found herself in the Tower several times. Admittedly it was mostly because Kat was a foolish woman who loved to gossip & often caused trouble with her indiscretions. But, she was utterly loyal to Elizabeth, she was the closest thing to a mother Elizabeth had ever known, & she was repaid by lifelong love & loyalty by the Queen after her accession. Ladies like Bess Throckmorton & Elizabeth Vernon who fell in love with courtiers & wanted to marry met a frosty reception from the Queen who was a jealous mistress, demanding total loyalty, even at the expense of her ladies’ happiness. Secret marriages & pregnancies were often the result & some unlucky ladies ended up in the Tower. There’s lots of scandal, treason, ambition & duplicity in the stories of these women. If you’ve read other books about Elizabeth, this will give you another perspective on her life.

* Dani at A Work In Progress has just reviewed the Sourcebooks reprint of Young Bess here. What a gorgeous cover this new edition has. I love the fact that Sourcebooks have been reprinting some wonderful English fiction in recent years. Georgette Heyer, R F Delderfield & now Margaret Irwin among others. I believe they're going to reprint Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' Morland Dynasty series as well.


  1. What a fascinating concept - I will seek this out. It is quite interesting to compare Elizabeth's attitude to women with those of other female leaders - Margaret Thatcher was often bought up in this context when she was the UK Prime Minister. Going back to Elizabeth - does the book pick up on the myths that circulated in her life time that she was a man?
    Wonderfully interesting post - thanks indeed for sharing

  2. Yes Hannah, the book does discuss the rumours that she had some physical deformity that wouldn't allow her to have children or even a sexual relationship but it dismisses them. Most of the hostile commentary was from her enemies who just couldn't accept a successful woman on the throne. I think there's more to the theory that her personal experiences led to an emotional inability to have a relationship. She'd seen enough death & misery resulting from personal relationships & she'd seen the disaster of her sister's marriage & the mess the Queen of Scots made of marriage. Her ability to give "answers answerless" to her Council was the perfect delaying tactic.