by Victoria Holt
Lettice Knollys, the Countess of Leicester, because of her beauty and attractiveness, was a constant rival to Queen Elizabeth I. A Boleyn relation, she was summoned to court to attend the queen at an early age, and the Queen recognized her right away as one of those young women she would have to watch closely, less they become ‘wanton’ and stir up gossip in her court. Queen Elizabeth is described as coquettish towards the male favorites, but stern and strict with the ladies. Though she liked having beauties surrounding her, she always wanted to think of herself as the most beautiful of all. And so, she became jealous and angry if any of her women had lovers or wed secretly.
Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was the favorite among favorites and could do no wrong (at least in the long run). The Queen would reprimand him again and again, but always took him back into favor. The worst offense, according to the Queen, was his secret marriage to Lettice. Once it was known they had wed, the Queen went into a rage and refused to have Lettice, newly dubbed The She-Wolf, at court ever again. Robert, however, was allowed back into her good graces after a while and returned to favor.
This story is from the perspective of Lettice, who is not exactly an admirable character – she is vain, selfish and overly ambitious. She is, however, a good mother and the choices she makes are justifiable for the most part. I quite enjoyed reading about her extremely long life (94 years!) and her complex relationships. I was not impressed by her attraction to Leicester, but I think it was depicted in a way that allowed her to be human – a woman with a weakness who made mistakes and admitted such.
I’ve read several accounts of Robert Dudley from different authors, and I have to point out that this one is the most unflattering. It is insinuated that he poisons anyone who gets in his way, though never stated as absolute fact. In this novel he is sinister and his only goal in life is climbing his way to the throne, no matter by what means. In Lettice he sees an ambitious woman who also matches his amorous appetites, and once he is certain the Queen will not marry him she is settled on as his partner in life. The fact that she had a husband did not stop him, and one more person conveniently died a suspicious death, making Lettice available for a second marriage. Unfortunately for her, this was her ticket to a life in the country, never to be admitted to court again. It wasn’t long before she began to realize that perhaps Robert wasn’t worth the trouble.
This is a wonderful account of the happenings at court not directly related to politics – Elizabeth’s shortcomings, gossip and scandals. While it’s not entirely fair to the Queen, as it mostly shows her weaknesses, it does give a sense of that other side of her – the coquettishness and aversion to marriage. Though she was not at court to witness everything, Lettice had friends and relatives close to Queen at all times, including her son, Essex, who was a great favorite. As such, she had firsthand accounts of everything and was able, in a way, to be involved even if Elizabeth would not see her face to face.
Elizabeth’s death came 30 years before her own, though because she was impoverished by Leicester’s debts she remained in the country caring for her grandchildren.