The reign of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, provides the grist of some of England’s most fascinating history. Westin’s particular talent as a writer of historical fiction is in interpreting known facts and adding the human element that causes her characters to become flesh and blood, at least for the duration of the novel. His Last Letter is confined essentially to the years 1585-88, as a reluctant Elizabeth goes to war with Philip of Spain and defeats his armada with the superior designs of her navy’s ships and the emotional support of the man she has long loved but could never marry, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester: “This was her life. Eventually everyone she loved left her.”
With her brilliant political instincts, honed on the terrifying years when her mother was beheaded by her father, her half-sister, Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), imprisoned in the Tower and endless plots swirled around the English throne implicating Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth understands intuitively that she cannot share power with any man and keep the throne of England. Yet, as intelligent and tough as Elizabeth appears, she is at heart a woman, one who has only known betrayal at the hands of men. She has loved the handsome Dudley since her youth, the only truly carefree days they knew as a couple, the source of Elizabeth’s affection for Robin and his stubborn hope that she might love him enough to share her throne with him. It is an emotional quandary that plagues Elizabeth and Dudley all their days and the source of one of histories great - and tragic - love stories.
Youth behind them, the order for the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, awaiting Elizabeth’s signature, war with Philip of Spain imminent, Westin distills the political realities and the bruised passions of a queen who cannot bear to be separated from her Robin, who is unquestionably the queen’s man. It is not only his counsel she craves but his comfort, the years falling away for both of them when they are together. Elizabeth is tormented by Robin’s marriages and infidelities, but she long ago realized the consequences of denying him her bed. Now, with the war unsettling her to the core, Elizabeth’s famous indecisiveness is tempered only by Dudley’s gentle prodding toward action.
In brief chapters, Westin reveals the traumatic life of a princess too often threatened by death in the Tower, haunted by the contrast of her father’s grand image and lack of interest in his quest for a son, the lies of courtiers and the one friend she can trust implicitly but can never wed. It is a lovely, moving portrait of a man and woman caught in history’s web, each bedeviled by expectations and disappointments but never wavering in affection. The true story of the Virgin Queen will never be known, but His Last Letter is an apt footnote to the life of an extraordinary woman.