Paperback $17.00

Mar 25, 2003 | 656 Pages

Ebook $12.99

Dec 18, 2007 | 656 Pages

  • Paperback $17.00

    Mar 25, 2003 | 656 Pages

  • Ebook $12.99

    Dec 18, 2007 | 656 Pages

Author Q&A

Many U.S. readers know you primarily for your Arthurian novels—the Guenevere trilogy and the Tristan and Isolde trilogy—but you actually wrote I, Elizabeth first. There have been so many novels about Elizabeth; why did you feel it was important for you to write this “autobiography”?

Most of the work on Elizabeth was focused on the public figure, giving a rather one-dimensional picture of her as a world leader or as the Virgin Queen. But she was also a fashion leader who had thousands of gowns; a scholar who turned to her books every day; a fervent horsewoman; and a passionate, sensual woman capable of lifelong relationships and extraordinary love affairs. I wanted to do justice to all these sides of her nature, and to show that the Queen who defeated the Spanish Armada and led England through the worst of times was the same woman who broke her heart over unsuitable men and was always vulnerable to a charmer with a flashing smile. We also tend to have a rather static image of Elizabeth as she was in the prime of her life, but it is fascinating to trace her story from the unwanted child who was so frightened and so alone to the majesty of the aged Queen who held the whole world in awe.

You are a woman of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—how did you approach the challenge of writing in the voice of Elizabeth, a woman of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

I was born in a Tudor market town beside one of the royal chases where Henry VIII hunted, so Elizabeth and her world were very real to me from my earliest days. As a child I was brought up on the Bible and Shakespeare, the language of Elizabeth’s day, and I struggled with Latin and Greek at school, enough to learn some of the texts she knew. Later on, the Elizabethans were my favorites when I studied English at university and I was able to steep myself in the speech of the time.

But Elizabeth herself was the primary source. She was unusually forthright and loved to speak her mind, and there are many recorded examples of her voice. She had a unique and passionate way of speaking, with a highly distinctive tang. She was sometimes salty, and would swear with the best when provoked, but she also showed tenderness, weakness, jealousy and all the feelings of a woman’s heart. When I was writing the book, I imagined I could hear her talking to me. Even now, when I close my eyes, I hear her still.

Elizabeth’s relationships with men are the subject of hundreds of years of speculation—do you truly believe that she and Robert Dudley were lovers? Do you think she seriously considered marrying him or any other man? Is there historical evidence one way or the other?

Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were often seen behaving on terms of great physical familiarity, and this occasioned wild gossip at the time, including repeated rumors that they were man and wife. I believe that they were lovers in the fullest sense of the word, although her natural caution and their constant lack of privacy severely limited their chances of full intercourse. When she was young, England’s desperate need for an heir meant that she was forced to consider marriage with almost every eligible prince or king in Europe, and we know that she thought of marrying Dudley because they joked with the Spanish ambassador about it. We also know that she pined for children and grieved at being barren, when the humblest of her subjects could be loving wives and mothers and she could not. But she had seen both her sister, “Bloody” Mary Tudor, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, make disastrous marriages, and as a queen she feared that any husband would try to rule both her and the country, as their husbands did. As a child she also saw two of her four stepmothers, and many other women, die in childbirth after great suffering. This would have been another powerful argument against marriage in the days before contraception and prenatal care.

Do you think being a woman made Elizabeth a better ruler than her father or other male monarchs of the time? Ultimately, do you think her gender was a liability or an asset for her as a leader?

I believe that being a woman gave Elizabeth access to a far greater range of options than were available to the male monarchs of her time, and she seized these opportunities with both hands. The male monarchs had to project themselves as strong and invincible at all times, whereas she could play both the tough ruler and the “little woman,” as she did in the famous Armada speech at Tilbury when she claimed to “have the body of a weak and female woman and the heart and stomach of a king.” Her relationships with foreign monarchs always had a playful, sexual tone, which a king could not have used with another king, and she prolonged these dalliances to brilliant diplomatic effect.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, it was universally assumed that her gender was a liability because women were mentally and physically inferior to men. It is amazing to see how Elizabeth turned this liability into a strength, and used it for the country’s good. In the end she made herself both the Virgin Queen and the mother of the country and died knowing that she had reigned with England’s wholehearted love.

What can we learn from Elizabeth? What does her life teach modern readers?

Elizabeth was a woman of exceptional gifts, who in the modern world might have been a Nobel prize–winning intellectual or the first woman president of the U.S. But her greatest virtues were those available to everyone: courage, endurance, and common sense. Growing up in fear for her life, she quite literally never lost her head. In times of greatest terror she mastered her feelings and hung on. She made it her primary goal to get through from day to day without letting others down, and refused to panic even when the King of Spain loosed all the fury of the Armada on her head. I believe we can learn a lot from this in an era when we are encouraged to let all our emotions out and allow ourselves to be driven by whatever we feel.

In private life, too, Elizabeth did not give way to weakness, self-indulgence, or despair. However much she was in love, she did not allow men to devastate her life, but called on her basic doggedness to survive—even with a broken heart. Today’s young women are lucky enough to understand that they do not have to have a man to complete their lives, and that they can survive the worst that the world throws at them both in love and work. Because of this, the story of Elizabeth I is as heartening and inspirational today as it was in her time.

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