Caro, Jane Just a Queen University of Queensland Press, May 2015, $19.95, 313pp., ISBN 978 0 7022 5362 1
Those Tudor kings and queens have kept us intrigued since they too bit the dust – Henry VIII and his ‘bastard’ daughter, Elizabeth I especially. Caro has given us the latter’s childhood, in Only a Girl. In this one, apparently the second in a trilogy that the author is contemplating, she is at last Queen Elizabeth, Queen Bess, Gloriana, The Virgin Queen. But we are at a turning point, the moment when she must decide to rid herself of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who has been a thorn in her side for twenty years.
For 295 pages Elizabeth argues, apologises and grieves for Mary. She defends Mary’s right to live, she honours her royalty, and secretly envies her for her three husbands and her living son, James VI of Scotland. But events in Europe, Mary’s arrogance, and the persistant nagging of her advisors force Elizabeth’s hand, and the death warrant is signed. I am not spoiling the story: we are aware that that is to happen as the novel opens. And the reader cannot escape Elizabeth’s protestations, too much, even in the last pages, after Mary’s fate has been sealed.
Elizabeth is benign, loving, determined, and with a character strong enough to defy the older men who advise her if she believes something is right. She understands her position as an unmarried monarch without a clear successor, and the strictures that places upon her, but she knows, also, that there is such a one to take over at her death. Her virginity weighs heavily on her, as Caro portrays her, and she regrets it. Her love for Dudley is never fulfilled sexually, despite his passions. She toys with the Spanish king, speaks coyly to the parliament, but longs for an intimacy she may never have. In fact, this Elizabeth whinges and cries too often.
Caro creates all the splendour of the Court, with her central character constantly torn between her instincts and her advice. Dudley, Cecil, Walsingham enchant and annoy her in turns. The religious furore of Catholic versus Protestant bubbles away. At her death Elizabeth left England ‘an empty coffer and a thousand dresses‘, and we know about some of those dresses in the novel. Historians have also noted that even at the age of fifty she dressed like the girl she once was. The cover illustration emphasises the clothes rather than the face of a queen, but Caro’s subject emerges fully rounded, even if she does care too much about what we think of her. What we don’t find is the rather mucky personal hygeine of Tudor times. Elizabeth seems to be a clean queen.
There is little about the life of the ordinary people in Just a Queen. Unlike Wolf Hall, there are no blacksmith’s sons. Elizabeth makes the occasional sortie into the countryside in a coach, and frequent rides on horseback in the hunt, but always under guard and protected from the short and brutish lives of the peasants and poverty-stricken city-dwellers who are beyond her vision. It took two hundred years to awaken the aristocracy, at first the French, that they should have looked harder at the people they ruled, but that has no place here. Just a Queen has a list of sources, and brief outlines of prominent players in the Tudor, French, Scottish and Spanish courts.
This is a book for royal enthusiasts, and amateur historians. Teachers’ Notes are available on the UQP website.
reviewed by Stella Lees