Review: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir (historical fiction)

Recently I’ve been delving into the world of historical fiction, reading books such as Alison Weir’s “Innocent Traitor” and Ken Follet’s “Pillars of the Earth”. Historical fiction can be great, if it is written and researched well but more often than not it ends up being an inaccurate, awful thing to read. Very rarely do I come across historical fiction that pulls me in enough so that I can read it in a couple of days, the only ones that I have read lately are “Pillars of the Earth” and “Mistress of the Art of Death” although there have been others throughout the years.
I wanted to write today about the latest historical fiction book I’ve read, and literally finished a couple of days ago. It was a copy of Alison Weir’s “The Lady Elizabeth”, and I was looking forward to reading it. I am a huge fan of a lot of Weir’s non fiction work, and have found a lot of it to be well written and well researched, but with this novel I was sorely disappointed.
The book itself is the story of Elizabeth I’s early life, as she grows up through the execution of her mother, her father’s countless wives, her bastard status, living in fear as her sister Mary ascended the throne and she spent time in the Tower. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well written and I loved how Weir wrote how Elizabeth was feeling at certain points in her life, how she cried when she found out about her mother, and how the execution of Katherine Howard made her sure she never wanted to marry. We also see the incident that happened between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour when she was staying with Katherine Parr, the sexual tension between the young Elizabeth and the much older Seymour, how they were caught in a passionate embrace which made Katherine send Elizabeth away…
It was at this stage I almost put the book down. It seems that Weir thought it would be a good idea to write about the rumours that Elizabeth bore Thomas’ child as if it were true. This was never proven and I’m sure that had their been more to the rumours then as historians we would know more. However these days we can deduce that this did not happen, as the rumours came from the anti-protestant factions at court. Now I understand that this is historical fiction and readers like a bit of scandal but this was going too far for me – Elizabeth, later known as The Virgin Queen, pregnant with Thomas Seymour’s child, a child that was miscarried and thrown into the fire as soon as it was born? I don’t think so. The problem with this is that if someone does not understand the time period, and read this in a novel written by a respected historian, they will believe it and yet again inaccuracies will be placed in the public mindset. Look at the vilification of Anne Boleyn, and the publication of Phillipa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl” – people already believed Anne to be a whore who slept with countless men, believed her to be a witch (which we of course know she wasn’t, and that she was innocent of all charges) but when TOBG came out, people started believing it. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard people say Anne must have slept with her brother and given birth to a deformed foetus and it must be true because TOBG says so. It makes me want to bash my head against a brick wall. As I said above, it’s fiction, a story made up by the author and readers like a bit of scandal, but completely changing history in that sense? It’s just awful.
However I carried on, however grudgingly, and made it to the end of the book. Weir’s writing was good, and flowed nicely, and I have to say she did tell the story well especially the rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth after Mary took the throne, and I felt Elizabeth’s fear as she was taken to the tower, felt how scared she was that she would follow the Lady Jane Grey to the block. There aren’t many authors that can do that to their readers, and for that reason I’ll be marking this book a little higher than I would have done.
This book is a quick read, and a good one to read if you just want to escape into the past for a little while. I do recommend it to those interested in Tudor historical fiction, although I would say go into with an open mind and take the rather huge inaccuracy with a pinch of salt. But if you’d prefer a more accurate portrayal of Elizabeth then I would go for a non fiction book about her, “Elizabeth” by David Starkey or even Weir’s non fiction “Elizabeth the Queen”.
I think it’s time for me to head back to the non-fiction shelves…

4 thoughts on “Review: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir (historical fiction)

  1. I've always steered well clear of the Tudor historical fiction, chiefly because everything always ends messily with the Tudors–usually with someone's head on the block. (Obviously, in my period of specialisation, things always end neatly and tidily. Ha ha.) Also, I can't take the swoony way the females are written. And your fine review of a not-so-fine novel makes me grateful I have avoided them.

    I'm stunned, frankly, that Weir has inserted this kind of tacky rumour about Elizabeth as if it were true. I just don't even know where to look. (The stuff about her mother is equally unpalatable and is just another example of a modern novelist not having a flaming clue of how the 16th century Protestant mind perceived sin and damnation…Actually, don't get me started on this one…)

    Anyway, thank you for this. (And yes, I stick with non-fiction for the most part too…) Cheers–MM

  2. Hmmm! I enjoy my dose of Historical fiction and have read 'Mistress in the Art of Death', but haven't quite gotten around to Follet yet nor have I read Alison Weir.
    I appreciate your honest review. I do take fiction writing with a grain of salt as I have strong opinions about certain historical personages and have seen them 'thrown under the bus' to achieve a good sensational read. I will have to check out this book.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Alison Weir is rather well known for her occasional historical exaggerations and personal opinions presented as fact even in her non-fiction books, especially with regard to her vehement prejudice against Richard III (Loyaulte me Lie!)

  4. ah Barbara! Someone got the blog name yay 😀 Yes I have heard about her huge dislike of Richard III, and it makes me so sad that someone who should be respected as a historian puts such a personal slant on thing and passes these opinions as fact 😦

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