Although I have read several of Alison Weir’s meticulously researched histories and historical biographies, I feel her gifts are more for nonfiction than fiction. In her novel The Marriage Game, she concentrates on the struggles and power plays around the issue of Queen Elizabeth I’s marriage during the first years of her reign. Unfortunately, Weir focuses on this subject so much to the exclusion of others that you would think it was the only item of concern in the realm. For example, Elizabeth sends Cecil away to broker a peace with Scotland, which is almost the only mention of a war.
The novel begins right after Elizabeth hears of her sister’s death and takes the throne. Her advisor William Cecil almost immediately raises the issue of her marriage. Elizabeth, determined not to lose her hard-won power to a husband, finds her repeated statements that she will not marry either not believed or met with the opinion that her remaining unmarried would not be good for the kingdom. Elizabeth takes a flirtatious stance, refusing to be pinned down to a decision but forever pretending she’s considering a suitor.
Confusing the issue is Lord Robert Dudley, for whom she has a decided preference. But he is already married. Still, she heeds no one’s warnings about her reputation. She keeps him with her even when his wife is dying, and at least in this novel, their physical relationship includes everything except actual penetration. Just whether the Virgin Queen was a virgin is a subject of debate, and this seems to be Weir’s (perhaps unlikely) compromise. The mystery of what happened to Dudley’s wife seems much less important than it actually was at the time.
Weir has not chosen to make this story romantic or even depict the two main characters sympathetically. Neither is fully formed, but both are selfish, ambitious, demanding, and conniving. Although the novel is well written and should be interesting, it eventually devolves into repetitious arguments, with Dudley’s ambitions thwarted and Elizabeth incensed because he has overstepped his bounds. If there is an arc to the plot, I couldn’t discern it. I couldn’t help thinking that a novel about Elizabeth that was a little broader in scope would be more interesting. After reading most of the novel, I finally decided I was finding it tedious and quit reading it. Very disappointing, especially considering Weir’s excellent biography of Mary Boleyn.