`His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester`, by Jeane Westin: More than 400 years after it ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Tudor period seems back in vogue with a successful movie, sexy cable series and slew of books dedicated to England`s most powerful monarchs.
While Henry VIII has received a romantic makeover with the 2008 film, "The Other Boleyn Girl," and Showtime`s "The Tudors," his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, are the subject of a new novel and two biographies.
Elizabeth, Henry`s daughter by Anne Boleyn, was the last of his three children to assume the throne and is well-known as one of England`s longest ruling and best-loved monarchs. During her nearly 45-year reign, England established itself as the world`s leading naval power with the defeat of the Spanish Armada and a cultural leader with the writings of William Shakespeare and others.
With hundreds of books already written about Elizabeth`s life, it`s a challenge for any author to come up with something new. But Jeane Westin puts a new spin on an old story with "His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester," her novel about Elizabeth`s love affair with Robert Dudley.
Most novels and other works about their relationship focus on the early years of Elizabeth`s reign when the two shocked Europe with their flirtatious behavior. The scandal became worse when Dudley`s wife died mysteriously, and many thought he might have killed her so he would be free to marry the young queen.
Westin flashes back to those early days, but the bulk of her novel is focused on the middle and later portions of their 30-year romance. When Dudley died in 1588, the grief-stricken queen locked herself in her room for days with his last letter. Westin looks at how their relationship endured, despite Elizabeth`s flirtations with other courtiers and Dudley`s disastrous marriage to one of the queen`s cousins, and they clearly remained the great loves of each other`s lives.
The novel is not only a recounting of two great lives, but also a look at love in middle age, when couples see each other as they once were and not as the graying, aching, wrinkled beings they have become. Trust and shared memories have become as important as physical passion once was, and while the couple argues, they soon make up, knowing they can`t live without each other.
Two scenes stand out: one in which Elizabeth disguises herself as a maid to watch an archery contest in which Dudley is competing and another in which he makes his final pitch for marriage.
Due out this fall, "Elizabeth`s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen" looks at another part of Elizabeth`s life that has received somewhat less attention from historians — her relationships with other women. As author Tracy Borman notes, Elizabeth is generally thought of as a man`s woman as her advisers and courtiers were male and she often referred to herself as a male being, a "prince" instead of a queen.
But Borman notes that Elizabeth`s closest companions and servants were female, as men were barred from the queen`s private rooms, and other women, including stepmother Katherine Parr and governess Kat Ashley, had strong and lasting influences. While Borman takes a traditional view of the historical record and doesn`t break a lot of new ground, "Elizabeth`s Women" is notable for the detail it provides on historical figures who are but minor players in other works.
Also coming up is "Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen," Anna Whitelock`s biography of Elizabeth`s half-sister, who preceded her as queen. Often known as "Bloody Mary," because of the hundreds of Protestants killed during her Catholic reign, she has received more sympathetic treatment in recent novels, which focus on the unhappiness and chronic insecurity caused by her father`s abandonment and mistreatment of her and her mother.
Whitelock follows in this vein, exploring the contrast between Mary`s accomplishments as England`s first ruling queen and her personal tragedies. She is particularly careful to note ways in which Mary laid the groundwork for Elizabeth`s longer, more illustrious reign. Like "Elizabeth`s Women," "Mary Tudor" doesn`t break a lot of new ground, but for those interested in the period, it`s a solid addition to the growing body of revisionist writings about the period.