The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory
By reading this book I discovered a great many things I had not known before – perhaps ignorantly so I had always assumed that the film ‘Elizabeth’ was historically accurate however after reading this novel and doing some further research I have discovered much and how inaccurate the film actually is. But this isn’t a film review…so getting to the novel.
The novel begins with the ascension to the throne by Elizabeth. The bells of England are ringing and its people rejoicing – all but Amy Robsart, the wife of Sir Robert Dudley. We get a brief bit of background to a year earlier as to the failures of Dudley under the reign of Mary, Elizabeth’s older sister and we get a brief insight into the relationship of Amy and her husband – more for those who haven’t read the novel prior to this, The Queen’s Fool reviewed above. We then come back to present and we are introduced to the court of Elizabeth I. Her closest adviser – Sir William Cecil, her closest friends – Kat Ashley and even members of her family such as Catherine Knolly’s with her stunning daughter who is the splitting image of the Queen herself. The relationship between the Queen and Dudley is intimate from the beginning and though he is only her Master of Horse he also participates in organising her coronation as well as all other large courtly events.
As the novel progresses the relationship between Dudley and Elizabeth becomes ever more intimate, Cecil, though her chief advisor gets pushed aside more and more as she takes advice from Dudley instead of him. As threats start to come from Scotland from Mary of Guise and as she battles to become ruler of the church in order to make England protestant once more, she becomes more and more burdened with the weight of being queen and being a woman at the same time. Her affection for Dudley gets in the way of her need to marry and even her suitors cannot compete with Dudley even though she needs to marry for security. Gregory also has the novel flicking back and forth from the court and Elizabeth to Amy and how her life worsens as Dudley sees her less and less and she watches his affection for her deteriorate. So the novel progresses as Elizabeth rules a country unhappy to be converted, a country at war and a country against her wishes to marry the handsome gypsy-like Dudley.
It is unclear how Gregory wants us to feel about the characters she creates in this novel. Bearing in mind that these are real people but the plot is considerably fictionalised as we don’t know everything about this era we have to be led by the hand by Gregory and maybe it was just my interpretation but my opinion of characters varied immensely from beginning, middle and then to end. Amy, for example, is frankly irritating at first – she is clearly obsessed with Dudley and extremely jealous of the relationship Dudley has with the Queen that the whole country knows about. Her ignorance in simple matters and child-like way of thinking also becomes annoying as personally I just saw her as an obstacle in the way of the love between Dudley and the Queen. As the novel progresses, however, I started to see how difficult it must have been for her where everyone in the country knew that she was being put aside for another woman and how painful that would have been for her to cope with – that said, she is still annoying but I can sympathise. This can also be said of Dudley – as Elizabeth falls more and more in love with him, to an extent, so does the reader. At first he is charming and the typical romantic – the relationship he and Elizabeth have is ideal (bar the fact she’s queen and can’t marry him without creating worldwide scandal) and we, as readers, want the relationship to work. Again, however, as the novel progresses we begin to see the ambition of Dudley and though it remains clear that he does love the Queen more than anything – more than his wife – he reaches too far in his ambition to be King of England and Elizabeth starts to fear his ambition and her inability to say no to him because of how she feels about him.
Though I believe it is Gregory’s intention to change the opinion of Elizabeth to, I was unaffected by this – ever since I was small and I watched the film Elizabeth I had fallen in love with the beautiful, powerful idyllic image of Elizabeth and I cannot help but love and admire her. She achieved so much in a man’s world and showed herself to be one of, if not the best rulers England has ever had. I shall always love her for that – as I have always admired strong women.
On the whole, this was a fantastic novel I couldn’t help but get intimately involved in – I felt like I was there beside Elizabeth as she struggled to decide on the best for England whilst still clinging on to herself while she did it. I discovered so much I didn’t know about Dudley and about Elizabeth’s court and the people in it at the time and I found it fascinating. After reading this novel, I feel that I admire her all the more and I look forward to reading more about such an incredible woman – I wrote a poem about Elizabeth whilst in the throes of reading it, that has to say something.