Despite all that has been written about England’s Queen Elizabeth I, Westin explores yet another fascinating aspect of the Virgin Queen’s reign: her demands that her ladies-in-waiting should remain as unsullied as the queen herself. Since image is such an integral part of Elizabeth’s reign, both leader of and soldier for her country, the queen surrounds herself with women who project purity and innocence.
Even the monarch’s anguish over her love of Robert Dudley cannot deter Elizabeth’s from her primary goal: “My people will be husband and child to me and it will be enough.” That isn’t to suggest this queen is exempt from love’s passionate extremes. Her relationship with Dudley is laced with fury, either at his assumptions or her bitter resistance to her very human feelings. Yet this instinctive monarch does not fail in her leadership of England.
Of course, Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting have not the responsibility of the country’s future to sustain them. Certainly, many fail their queen, but perhaps none so painfully as Katherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey, who lost her head through the machinations of ambitious parents. The battle between queen and lady is waged as Kate puts aside her early love for Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Kate has every intention of remaining as virginal as her queen, but when Seymour returns to court, Kate is unable to resist this powerful attraction.
A union with Seymour would certainly fuel Elizabeth’s legitimate paranoia that certain factions hope to unseat her. In Westin’s sensitive treatment of the relationship between queen and Kate, politics is only background in an unfolding drama. Few have the courage of this queen and Kate pays dearly for her failure, an emotional tug of war between an unforgiving monarch and a desperate woman who has not the strength to turn her back on love.
It is hard to imagine that another lady-in-waiting could match the drama between queen and lady, but Part II reveals another such battle, equally as moving and wrought with conflict. On the throne for forty years, Dudley in his grave Elizabeth is infatuated with Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. In the shadow of Elizabeth’s foolish flirtation with the ambitious younger man, Mary Rogers joins the queen’s court only to fall under the spell of the queen’s godson, Sir John Harington.
Predictably, Elizabeth slays passion in the name of country, a difficult, demanding figure, sad yet magnificent in her grand struggle to stand alone on the throne. But as this new contretemps unfolds, Westin reveals more of Elizabeth’s morally complicated life, the nature of her personal struggle, and her need to have the loyalty of her ladies. At the heart of all is the deep love for the queen and both Kate’s and Mary’s promises to her.
History has proved Elizabeth right, but in this tale of humanity versus the demands of state, Westin perfectly captures the lifelong battle waged by the queen. At great personal pain, Kate and Mary cling to their promises, all but destroyed by their commitments to the Virgin Queen, where love must always defer to loyalty and honor is a pale consolation.