Weir imbues her second novel with the same passion for detail as Innocent Traitor. Devoted to Elizabeth Tudor’s early years, The Lady Elizabeth begins in 1536 when the little princess is but three years old, her infamous mother, Anne Boleyn, long since a victim of the executioner’s sword.
Although age separates the two sisters, Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, and her younger sister, Elizabeth, are deeply connected to one another and value their position in King Henry’s affections. With some deference to Elizabeth’s extreme youth, Mary manages to avoid a natural tendency to resent her younger sister.
In this portrait, Mary and Elizabeth are strikingly like their mothers, Mary religious and serious, Elizabeth curious and precocious, with a markedly imperious bent that she hones over time, adapting to overwhelming challenges as a female monarch who refuses marriage regardless of the pressures of her advisors.
Although much is known of these sisters, including their lifelong tug-of-war over Elizabeth’s reluctance to betray the Reformed faith in favor of Mary’s fanatical Catholicism, Weir cuts to the heart of Elizabeth’s character as a child, from a constant procession of stepmothers to the painful days of Henry’s renunciation of his daughters’ legitimacy.
Indeed, with the birth of Edward, son of Henry VIII’s union with Jane Seymour, both females are consigned to inheritance limbo, no longer referred to as “princesses” but “Ladies”. They navigate a treacherous court, but the young Elizabeth is so emotionally attached to Henry, the only male constant in her life, that she is particularly devastated by his death. Rudderless, save a few devoted souls, Elizabeth clings to Kat, the kindly servant who remains a constant caretaker.
By the time she is a teen, Elizabeth has undergone the rigorous vicissitudes of court intrigues, a chameleon who perfects her responses to various factions who view her as a threat to Mary after Edward dies. By the time Mary takes the throne, Elizabeth has begun a private battle to protect her religious integrity in spite of Catholic Mary’s constant demands.
The beauty of Weir’s novel is in the details, the subtle challenges between the stepsisters when the faith of a kingdom is at stake, Elizabeth ever on guard against those at court who would bring her into their schemes and periodic rebellions. But danger comes in many forms, some in the guise of friendship.
Certainly, at fifteen, the beleaguered young woman can be forgiven her flirtation with a worldly and devastatingly handsome Thomas Seymour, husband of Henry’s last queen, Elizabeth’s benefactress, Katherine Parr. Having never known affection without ulterior motivation, Elizabeth’s romantic naiveté yields a harsh lesson, the treacherous consequences of youthful passion, presaging her later decisions as the Virgin Queen, ruling alone.
Indulging in some fictional legerdemain, the author has crafted an intriguing protagonist, her destiny writ large long before she ascends the throne after her unhappy sister’s death. Her world littered with plots and temptations, Elizabeth instinctively steps through a minefield of the ambitions of others, proving her mettle in the most dire of circumstances, a born ruler long before she steps up to the throne of England.