Elizabeth, Captive Princess

Margaret Irwin

First published 1948. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN , 323 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess is the sequel to Young Bess, reviewed here. It covers the years from 1553 to 1555, when Elizabeth was aged 19 to 21. All the main characters are historical figures.

In July 1553, Elizabeth receives a touching message summoning her to visit her dying younger brother, King Edward VI. But her political instinct, finely honed during her turbulent childhood and adolescence, warns her of imminent danger. The Regent, John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, wants to rule England through his young daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey, and to do so he will have to imprison and/or execute both Elizabeth and her elder sister Mary. As Mary and Duke Dudley struggle for the throne, Elizabeth is in grave danger from both sides. Even when Mary successfully secures the throne, Elizabeth's peril is no less, as her popularity attracts Mary's jealousy and makes her (willingly or otherwise) a focal point for dissenters and rebels. As Mary's suspicions of her grow, Elizabeth will need all her intelligence and political ability if she is to avoid her mother's fate on the block.

This is the second in Margaret Irwin's trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I. I read and greatly enjoyed the trilogy years ago, and am pleased to see the novels back in print. The writing has a freshness and vivacity that does not pall with time, or with any number of re-readings. No matter how well the modern reader knows the outcome, no-one at the time knew what would happen, and Elizabeth, Captive Princess brilliantly captures the uncertainty and the dizzying speed of events. This is particularly true of the crammed nine days of Jane Grey's brief reign, which covers the first third of the novel.

As with Young Bess, the characterisation is splendid. Elizabeth's cleverness and charisma, her unpredictability, her courage, her quick wits and shrewd judgment, all leap to life on the page. It is easy to see how she alternately exasperated and charmed those who had to deal with her, and to admire her remarkable skill in treading a dangerous path with hardly a wrong step - a skill that would stand her in good stead in her later career.

The other people in the story are no less individual, with their characters revealed through their actions and words as well as by others' assessments of them. Although their lives touch Elizabeth's - difficult not to, for anyone involved in English high politics in the mid 1550s - they are the chief actors in their own dramas, not bit-players in hers. All have their own ambitions and failings, their own past history and their own hopes for the future. Even while admiring Elizabeth, the reader can still respect Mary, who begins her reign with courage, bright optimism and honest good intentions, can feel for scholarly Jane Grey earnestly trying to puzzle out right and wrong among the brutal contradictions and compromises of power politics, and can sympathise with all three as they are pushed into deadly conflicts with each other that are not of their making or desire. Even the minor characters, like Elizabeth's ex-tutor Roger Ascham, now a would-be diplomat and courtier, and homely Doctor Turner, are individuals following their own paths as best they can.

The rapid political and religious reversals of the 1550s form the background to the novel, and there is a real sense of a time of bewildering and yet also exhilarating social change. For those with nerve, ability, energy and luck new opportunities were opening up; but for those caught on the wrong side of change the consequences could be unpleasant, even fatal.

Elizabeth has an instinctive understanding of and empathy for other people. Unlike Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, both of whom are concerned with absolute right - and absolutely convinced that they are right - Elizabeth recognises and accepts the complexity and contradictions in English society. Her concern is not to eliminate differences of opinion, but to manage them so that disparate people can get on with their own lives more or less in harmony, or at any rate with a minimum of destructive conflict.

Vivid, powerful portrayal of Tudor England and the people who shaped it.