Is Plaidy’s Queen Our Queen?
Denise A. Davis
One of the most ardent debates in Queen Elizabeth I scholarship concerns the late Queen’s sexuality. Since the technology and scope of the reports about Queen Elizabeth’s love life were limited because of the time period and the harsh punishments given to subjects who spread rumors, there is no conclusive evidence to prove if she was or was not a virgin when she died. Unfortunately for those who want concrete proof, CNN did not exist in the sixteenth century. Many scholars still wonder if the “Virgin Queen” was a nickname describing Queen Elizabeth I’s actual sexual state—or was it just an adopted moniker designed to sway the public in her favor?
Many adaptations, both film and print, of Queen Elizabeth’s life have tried to supply some kind of reply to that question. In the most involved and most current (aside from Dame Judi Dench’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love that same year) big screen adaptation, Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film Elizabeth, Michael Hirst, the screenwriter and currently the writer of the series The Tudors, seemed to make it the latter, including a scene in the script where Queen Elizabeth goes to bed with Robert Dudley. A more recent rendering of Queen Elizabeth in a TV mini-series starring Anne-Marie Duff takes the opposite side, only allowing Elizabeth to experience sexual intercourse with Dudley while in her dreams.
In Jean Plaidy’s novel Queen of This Realm, Queen Elizabeth narrates the story of her life, therefore giving more insight into Queen Elizabeth’s mind amid the major events that shaped her existence and ultimately our own history. Amid the raging debate about her virginity, Plaidy’s novel assumes the virgin side of the fight, giving all indications through Queen Elizabeth’s voice that she believed that Queen Elizabeth remained a virgin for life. The book, published in 1984, gives a historically accurate view of Queen Elizabeth that does not gloss over the events that demonstrate her political and social influence and focus only on her exploits at court and with the opposite sex. Plaidy’s Queen Elizabeth is a most realistic rendering of a woman who experienced emotion during her eventful life but did not allow it to completely rule her, as she saw the ill effects of the lack of common sense displayed before her repeatedly.
The novel begins in a retrospective tone; Queen Elizabeth looks back at her life and realizes how much the first twenty-five years were filled with danger and upheaval, vowing, “[I]t is my endeavor never to forget them” (Plaidy 1). From a woman who outlasted living in the Tower during the reign of her Catholic sister when being Protestant as she was would put a person in great danger, the words are a clear reminder of her shrewd mind and her understanding of the inconstancy of luck and life. As Alison Weir points out in her biography of Elizabeth, “Caution was her watchword in all her dealings: she took no more risks than she had to. She had learned in a hard school” (Weir 17). Indeed, she had learned in a hard school; Plaidy’s Elizabeth then talks about her mother’s death and the way her mother tried to reach out to King Henry VIII with nothing but “exasperated indifference” in response (Plaidy 1). King Henry’s “cruel” treatment of Anne prompts this statement: “I vowed that no man should ever do to me what my father did to my mother” (1).
This pledge sticks with Elizabeth all her life and becomes further affirmed once she has more experiences with men, particularly Admiral Thomas Seymour. “I could not pretend that I had not noticed him and that I did not think of him one of the most exciting men I had ever seen,” Elizabeth says about Thomas Seymour (29). Of course, Elizabeth was an adolescent when she first met Seymour, the “swashbuckling Lothario” as Weir describes him; it is not a surprise that Elizabeth, even with all of her wisdom and self-control, became entranced with him (Weir 14). The struggle between Seymour and his older brother Edward, who is the Protector of the Realm to the young King Edward VI, does not go unnoticed by Elizabeth; she sees but does not want to completely believe in Seymour’s ulterior motives for wanting to marry her. She is, after all, third in line to the throne of England behind her older sister and little brother and more favored by the general public than Mary because the country is largely Protestant. Elizabeth reveals that there are two sides to her nature, the “shrewd observer who had never allow[s] any event of importance to be passed over” and the person who “dream[s] silly girlish dreams” (Plaidy 31). This makes sense because Elizabeth has already seen the treatment of her mother by her father and in a way has had to grow up far more than a thirteen-year-old should, but she still is a teenager, subject to emotions she has yet to learn how to put in check.
The plot with Seymour develops against the backdrop of the political struggle between him and his older brother, ending with Seymour imprisoned and beheaded. Elizabeth “steel[s]” herself before giving any public reaction to his death, displaying a bit of the enigmatic Elizabeth that would eventually rule England, and responds, “This day died a man of much wit but very little judgment”—a line she had “rehearsed” beforehand like a woman who wanted to choose her words carefully, as Elizabeth was (62).
As the novel progresses, Elizabeth develops the legendary relationship with Robert Dudley. Plaidy does not deny Elizabeth the sense of romance that comes with her relationship with Dudley even though Dudley is married; ironically enough, Elizabeth finds this occurrence to be a blessing because it is what saves her from going too far from him and Dudley himself from death during the plot concocted by his father to have a son on the throne. She both wants him around while she knows she cannot marry him; “perpetual courtship” is what Elizabeth desires because it will allow her to stay single while enjoying the company of men (150). “I wanted no man to stand beside me,” she says as the predicament over Dudley’s wife’s mysterious death runs its course (172). Elizabeth adheres to this vow, dying a single queen as history portrays her to be.
Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm reads wonderfully along with any biography of Elizabeth because it is steeped heavily within the history from which it came. Following most of Elizabeth’s life, Plaidy’s Queen takes a wide scope that does Elizabeth’s life the most justice. The only embellishment, it seems, is the insertion of Martin and his little sister as messengers for Elizabeth and Dudley during their imprisonment that seems to heighten the sense of romance between them but does not detract from the overall historical accuracy of the novel. Queen Elizabeth experienced courtly affections which were widely known and documented, but she still managed to impact the world during her reign despite speculation about her personal life. No matter where you stand on the debate on her virginity, Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm is very accurate according to what we know about Queen Elizabeth I.
Plaidy, Jean. Queen of This Realm. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1984.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
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