Young Bess

Margaret Irwin

First published 1944. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402229961, uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher. 381 pages.

Young Bess is the first in Margaret Irwin's trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I. It covers the years 1545-1533, when Elizabeth is aged 12-19, and focuses on the scandal surrounding her relationship with Thomas Seymour. All the main characters are historical figures.

Life at the royal court of England in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII is a risky business. The King, now grossly obese, onto his sixth wife and in failing health, is an unpredictable and bad-tempered tyrant. His younger daughter Elizabeth (Bess) is all too well aware that he killed her mother, Anne Boleyn. A highly intelligent twelve-year-old, she already understands the necessity of learning to navigate the dangerous undercurrents of political intrigue, and the fatal consequences of getting it wrong. She loves her new stepmother, kind Catherine Parr, as a mother, and is delighted to go to live with her after Henry's death. But soon Catherine marries her old love, the dashing and handsome Thomas (Tom) Seymour, uncle of Bess's half-brother the child-king Edward. Bess, now fourteen and just entering adolescence, is dangerously attracted to him and he to her. Tom is resentful of his elder brother's stranglehold on government, and eager to gain a share of power for himself. Whether Tom's interest in her is due to love, lust, ambition or all three, Bess is about to learn a tragic lesson in the perils of power and love that will shape the rest of her life.

I first read Margaret Irwin's Elizabeth trilogy many years ago, and it is just as fresh and vivid now as it was then. I am delighted to see it back in print. What draws me back to this trilogy time and again is the outstanding characterisation, not only of Bess but of the other characters as well. Everyone is an individual, with their own hopes, desires and all-too-human failings, portrayed in a way that is sympathetic and yet also clear-eyed. Bess, of course, is the centrepiece. Mercurial and charismatic, clever and yet naïve, still a child in her egotistical vanity but showing signs of the woman she will become, she attracts and exasperates the other characters (and the reader) in equal measure. In his much later biography of Elizabeth, historian David Starkey comments that the Seymour affair was when Elizabeth grew up, and in this masterly novel you can watch it happen.

Tom Seymour blazes across the pages like a comet, handsome, adventurous, courageous and careless, living up to Elizabeth's famous epithet, "…..a man of much wit and very little judgement." (Whether she actually said it is immaterial; it sums him up perfectly, at least as he appears here). His eldest brother Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, is a bundle of entirely believable contradictions; an idealist who cares about justice for the common people yet thinks nothing of demolishing churches in his desire to amass yet more property, a stern aesthete holding the supreme power of government who is terribly henpecked by his acquisitive wife. King Edward VI attracts sympathy as a frail and lonely boy pushed onto the throne too young - until he demonstrates his share of the Tudor ruthlessness.

Second only to the characterisation is the prose style, which is a delight. Lively, economical and witty, people and events are boldly sketched in a few evocative phrases.

I wonder if Tom's opinion of Somerset's German mercenaries might owe at least as much to the circumstances of the 1940s when the book was published than to the 1540s when it is set, and one or two of the characters' comments about the future, although great fun, are perhaps a little too much of a nod and a wink to the reader ("'If this goes on,' said Tom when he heard of it, 'in another hundred years they will find the King himself guilty of high treason and cut off his head'"). But these nods to the future aside, the overall effect of the novel is of having opened a window onto Tudor England in all its argumentative, colourful, contradictory life. This is a time of rapid social change, as new lands and new knowledge challenge the old certainties and open up both danger and opportunity. Young Bess captures the energy and the sense that anything might happen. No matter how well you know Elizabeth's story (and I would guess that if you found your way here you probably know it pretty well), the novel manages to make it as exciting and uncertain as it must have been for the characters at the time.

A powerful portrayal of Elizabeth's teenage years and her relationship with Tom Seymour, told in elegant prose and with superb characterisation.