Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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Day 646: The Marriage Game

Cover for The Marriage GameAlthough 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.

http://www.netgalley.comWeir 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.

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Day 265: Here Was a Man: A Novel of Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth I

Cover for Here Was a ManI don’t think I’ve read anything by Norah Lofts before, but even though she was a prolific historical novelist, I would rate this effort as mediocre.

Here Was a Man attempts to draw most of Raleigh’s life in a short space and does so by a series of vignettes illustrating important events. Although I am not completely familiar with his career, I know that Lofts  has chosen to portray a couple of apocryphal events, in particular the cloak in the mud story, which I believe has no basis in fact. The other serious lack of the novel is any depth of characterization.

The novel begins with Raleigh as a teenager, listening to sailors’ tales and dreaming of traveling the seas. He is also full of ambition for worldly success, an ambition that sometimes works to his disadvantage.

We are told many times about Raleigh’s sense of adventure, but we don’t really feel it. In fact, he seems to spend more time in prison than on his adventures. It is curious, too, that although he has many enemies at court, at least in this novel he has done nothing to earn their enmity. I would doubt that was really the case.

Raleigh is probably a character who could support an interesting and exciting novel, but this is not it. To be fair, it looks like it may have been one of Lofts’ first works.