The Virgin Queen: I, Elizabeth
If I had to pick a favorite historical figure, Elizabeth I, Queen of England wins, without question. Obviously, Rosalind Miles, the author of I, Elizabeth agrees with me wholeheartedly and Teresa McGurk wrote a hub about her. Miles’ efforts have produced a work of historical fiction, but one which is thoroughly researched and believable.
In her book, Miles uses a first person narrative to tell Elizabeth’s story from her childhood to almost the end of her life. And what a voice she has created for the queen. It’s authentic, without becoming ponderous. It's captivating, even mesmerizing. It’s Elizabethan talk without the thees and thous, and it’s quite readable. Though the book was published in 1994, you won’t find any contemporary idioms or slang of the twentieth century.
In an afterword, Miles says that she read many of Elizabeth’s writings and her speeches given to Parliament and thus developed a feel for the queen’s distinct way of speaking. It is to Miles’ credit that the reader easily grasps Elizabeth’s intelligence, political savvy, longings, hopes, and fears. The narration is used to greatest effect when Elizabeth is looking back and offering an intense analysis of a past event.
Married to England
If you read the reviews on Amazon (mostly positive) of this book, more than a few readers do not understand why Miles portrays Elizabeth as constantly obsessed with love and sex, constantly calculating her own flirtatious effect at court. The truth is, if a woman never marries – and practically all of Christendom and beyond pressured Elizabeth to find a mate – she does more than obsess. But as Miles so eloquently conveyed in her book, there is sometimes a high calling that precludes matrimony and the bearing of children. It became perfectly obvious to me why Elizabeth never married, even though she might have found fulfillment as a wife and mother. It must have been very difficult for her to contemplate sharing her power with any man. And with marriage, no matter how one might wish it weren’t so, there is the tendency to subordinate one’s desires to a husband. Growing up, Elizabeth internalized the stark truths of 16th Century womanhood – the common occurrence of death in childbirth, the cruel use her father, Henry VIII, had for her mother Anne Boleyn and several of his wives, the declaration of bastardy not only for herself, but for the Princess Mary, too.
There is no absolute proof that Elizabeth remained a virgin throughout her life, despite the appellation of the “Virgin Queen.” But even if she had little or no sexual involvement in her lifetime, it is obvious that Elizabeth enjoyed great emotional intimacy with many men during her reign. And all of her favorites are here, with Sir Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, getting prime mention for their magnetism and hunk-worthiness. The brief passages describing her dependence on her loyal friend and advisor, William Cecil, are also beautifully done. Indeed, I think she had this same soul connection with Robert Dudley, although she adored him as both a friend and a lover (at least, as seen through the author’s lense).
Human connections are not limited to the body or the soul. There is also a communion of spirits that we may share with special individuals, although spiritual advisors are not a part of Elizabeth’s story here. Indeed, there is not enough historical evidence to indicate Elizabeth’s true spiritual state before God. Despite this lack, I very much liked the inclusion of the passage where the queen prayed all night long before she met with Parliament for the first time.
Powerful, Descriptive Language
I cannot ever recall a time, unless it was during my college years, when I underlined significant passages in a novel, but with this superb book, I was compelled to read with a yellow highlighter nearby. Consider this descriptive passage about Elizabeth’s discovery of the privy chamber reserved for her at court:
My bed was a fourposter in which I and six other maidens could have romped at will. The bed hangings, of red, pink, and crimson silk, were embroidered inside and out with carnations so luscious that in dreams you could breathe their summer scent or pluck them for a salad.
There are many similar passages available for your delight.
At 552 pages in the hardback version of the book, you’ve got an investment of time, but it’s definitely worth it. Readers unfamiliar with Tudor history may get some of the historical personages confused, but there is a thoughtful appendix entitled “The Persons of My History”, which will help keep them all straight.
To be admired by exciting men like Sir Walter Raleigh, to have the world’s treasures laid at your feet, to be the recipient of adulation and love poured out from the hearts of your subjects – ahhhh, some speculate that this would be better than sex, and perhaps they would not be far from the truth. Because the novel uses first-person narration, it is very easy to slip into an altered state while reading, and not an unpleasant one at that. Imagine yourself in the company of this remarkable woman, and enjoy a glimpse into her soul.