The Virgin Queen’s Daughter, A Novel, by Ella March Chase
It is a testament to the well-deserved bad reputation among the Tudors among historians and novelists that just about anything that portrays the Tudors as power-hungry schemers is plausible and believable. When I was a college student I read a series of historical essays that made very plausible cases for the murder of the young princes in the tower by Henry VII instead of Richard III, as well as for the paternity of Elizabeth I being from Mark Smeaton rather than Henry VIII (a theory referred to in this novel several times as well). This novel is based on a story of a possibly illegitimate child being born by Elizabeth during a time in her life when she was not under close supervision made more plausible by making a slight change to the historical facts as we know them. The result is a well-written, fairly gripping historical novel.
That is not to say it is a perfect one. One’s enjoyment of this novel will depend in great deal on two factors–whether you find the heroine, a naive but spirited and intelligent young woman, pleasing or not, and whether you have an interest in reading a melodramatic historical romance dominated by female characters (Nell/Elinor, the heroine, her “real” mother Elizabeth I Tudor, and her adopted mother Lady Thomasin, who had been a lady-in-waiting for Queen Katherine Parr and who had been unable to bear children of her own). Make no mistake, this is a novel with a lot of cliches (a “bad guy” who is not so bad as he first appears in Sir Gabriel Wyatt, a few romance novel sex scenes that make sure to provide a marriage first in the case of the lead protagonists, a happy ending that is the most unconvincing aspect of the novel, and a shrewish mother set up as an early antagonist that appears much better when seen in a larger context chief among them), and if you dislike those cliches such as mother-daughter conflicts, love triumphing over all, a fair amount of talk about sex including adultery, fornication, child abuse, and prostitution, this may not be the novel for you.
The basic plot of this novel is straightforward enough. It is a historical novel that seeks to build a case for Queen Elizabeth having an illegitimate child who was saved from infanticide through the efforts of a barren woman of noble birth who was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, who took heroic efforts (including severing off the Boleyn “sixth finger”) to disguise the spirited red-headed bastard daughter of Elizabeth I Tudor as her own child. The child grew up, filled with dangerous scientific knowledge from her impractical and indulgent father, and as soon as her father is dead decides to try her luck as a lady-in-waiting at court. She soon is pursued by a dangerous man (Sir Gabriel Wyatt, part of the Earl of Leicester’s retinue, a man with a hot temper, skilled at seduction and swordplay), whom she is attracted to despite herself, and where the secret of her birth becomes a possible threat to Elizabeth’s throne.
The most unrealistic part of this novel is its ending, which takes a nearly certain death of its main characters in the Tower prison and commutes it for a lifetime of exile from court. The novel presents court as corrupt and dangerous and has a rather idyllic view of the life of Tudor noble families while viewing the power of the crown as a threat to the happiness and well-being of otherwise decent and noble families. There seems to be a bit of a selective judgment here, though. Clearly, the Tudor monarchs depended on immense amounts of spycraft and torture and fear to prop up their shaky regime (in fact, we might judge the shakiness of a regime in part by its insistence on jailing/silencing those who might pose any threat to their rule, a standard which makes many monarchies shaky by virtue of their insecurities). This view, however, almost completely ignores the common people unless they happen to be privileged servants. The exploitation of the poor to support the expensive and luxurious lifestyles of the nobility itself, and the fact that nobles had great freedoms that commoners did not, is scarcely examined critically and only mentioned in passing a few times.
Nonetheless, despite these flaws and cliches, the novel is well-written with a fairly taut and dramatic pace, a good knowledge of the fashion and culture of the time (especially the scientific and religious context of the Tudors), and it will probably please those who look at this novel with slightly indulgent eyes, the way that Lord Calverley looks at his clever but immature daughter. One should look at this book the same way, with a sense of indulgent pleasure. It is what it is, a well-researched historical romance that makes a plausible case in a historical controversy, and does so with skill. So long as one enjoys the scenery and can appreciate the skill of the author in weaving flashbacks and in handling the numerous secrets and lies and ‘shocking’ reveals that take place along the way , this will end up as an enjoyable read.
One aspect of praise that I must give the author in particular is a sound understanding of why political prisoners are treated so poorly by the regimes that imprison them. I say this as someone with a considerable degree of concern about finding out what it is like to be a political prisoner for myself. While most criminals, whether they break civil laws or only moral ones, or whether they are in jail or remain at large (or who may even be part of the order of a society), simply exploit the system and the people in it for their own selfish benefit, the political prisoner attacks the legitimacy of the system itself, placing everyone’s position in danger. The more insecure a system, the less its tolerance for criticism and the more harshly it responds to perceived threats. Tudor England was not a very secure system. Readers of this novel would do well to examine the contemporary societies of our world by the same standard and reflect very seriously about what that means.
Another particularly worthwhile (if perhaps unintentional) insight of this book is in the true nature of motherhood. Famously, King Solomon had to judge between two claimed harlot mothers of an illegitimate child (1 Kings 3:16-28). He judged the real mother as the one who wanted the child to live rather than die. This novel presents an interest twist on that story by showing how the “real” mother of the protagonist of this story is not the canny and insecure birth mother but rather the adopted mother. In so doing the author makes a serious point that families of choice and love outweigh families of blood. How consciously that point was made is, of course, impossible to tell without direct comments from their author herself. At the very least, this novel provides food for thought for the serious reader and an enjoyable plot and vivid characters for those interested in more surface reading. For either reader, that ought to be enough to make this a worthwhile book to read.