The Virgin’s Lover…
About the Book:
A sumptuous historical novel set in the court of Elizabeth I, from Sunday Times No.1 bestseller Philippa Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl.
Now I can be the queen that my mother intended me to be . . . the queen I was born to be. 1558. After years of waiting, Princess Elizabeth accedes to the throne of England. But the country is divided, the restoration of the Protestant faith ignites opposition from the church and beyond, and court remains a treacherous place. Many believe that Elizabeth must marry if she is to survive. For Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s ascension is a glorious new dawn, and he quickly positions himself as the young queen’s favourite. Dudley is a man of powerful lineage; his father had been a kingmaker at the court of Henry VIII. But Dudley has many enemies, amongst them William Cecil, the queen’s most trusted advisor. As powerful families vie for stakes in the emerging kingdom, Elizabeth must secure her own future.
And so my pilgrimage with Philippa Gregory’s Plantagenet and Tudor novels continues, this time with The Virgin’s Lover, the story of Queen Elizabeth I in her early years of ascending to the throne. Clearly, I am not reading these novels in order, instead approaching the series in hodge-podge manner based on whatever character I’m interested in at the time. Such as these novels are though, they hold up perfectly well as stand-alone reads and I haven’t encountered any instances that have given me a reason to regret this approach. Now, I’m going to approach this review as more of a character study and while the novel is about Elizabeth I and her paramour, Robert Dudley, for me, The Virgin’s Lover became the story of Lady Dudley, the wife Robert Dudley cast aside most brutally upon Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne.
I have always had high admiration for Elizabeth I, yet after reading this, I have to question my previous opinion. I’m not a fan of Henry VIII, he might have been a tremendous King but he was a fairly despicable man. Out of his six wives, there were two I really didn’t like, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. I didn’t approve of the way Henry disposed of them, but the manipulations of these two women had me questioning their royal worth. In The Virgin’s Lover, Elizabeth comes across as the very worst of both of her parents. Ruled by her desires (Henry) and prone to hysteria (Anne), manipulative (Anne) and hot tempered (Henry), disloyal (Henry and Anne) and arrogant to the point of blindness (Henry). She’s also what you get when a monarch is so focussed on his male heir that he fails to prepare the much healthier and robust women for the role his son is unlikely to ever fill. Elizabeth, and Mary before her, ascended to the throne with no preparation. The nature of their upbringing had also ensured that they had never experienced court life with any consistency. So they both made a hash of it. And while Elizabeth reigned supreme in the end, she got through those early years by luck and chance and the advice of men who had been there before, and not on her own merits at all. This also made her vulnerable and open to manipulation; enter Robert Dudley, childhood friend and A-one womaniser. The Dudley family was disgraced in the whole Jane Grey saga, father and brother executed as traitors, so when Elizabeth took the throne, Robert was pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in terms of social status, so he worked on his shared history with Elizabeth to butter her up and worm his way into her favour. It worked and he quickly rose as her favourite, much to the disgust of many and the concern of even more.
I don’t like Robert Dudley. Not even a little bit. He was married quite young, a love match he defied his parents over, to a woman slightly older than him, Amy Robstart. From the moment Elizabeth ascended to the throne, Robert cast Amy aside, steadily ignoring her until it got to the point that he had openly abandoned her and publicly shamed her. At first, I found Amy naïve and irritating, but I very quickly realised her worth and my heart just burst with sorrow for all this poor woman had to endure. She was not nearly as stupid as Robert, and indeed others around her, supposed her to be. Robert provided her with no home, merely moving her from one house to another with a purse of coins, rarely visiting her and hardly ever writing to her. As news of his affair with Elizabeth spread, Amy’s shame grew deeper and such was society back then that friends began to shun her, close their doors to her and refuse to be seen with her for fear of reprisals if Robert ended up marrying the Queen and becoming King consort. As Robert increasingly pressured her and threatened her with divorce – granted by none other than his lover, Elizabeth – Amy’s health, both mental and physical, declined steadily. It got to the point that a doctor refused to see her when she was ill for fear of reprisals and being blamed for her death if treatment went wrong. I was so incensed by this stage, at the fickle nature of society back then and the downright cowardice of men, and I say men because the women were all for helping Amy and were appalled at her treatment but they were of course unable to do much because the men at the head of their households forbade it. Robert Dudley could not have asked for a better wife, but instead of setting her up in the manner she deserved and treating her with the respect she was entitled to as a human being, he harangued her to death with the Queen’s encouragement. This line broke my heart, poor Amy, the low she had reached:
“I keep my eyes shut in the morning in the hope that I have died in the night, but every morning I see daylight and know that it is another day I have to get through.” – Amy Dudley in conversation to a trusted priest.
She died of a broken neck, but by whose hand remains a mystery to this day. It is almost certain she had breast cancer but had refused to seek treatment as she attributed the pain in her breast to heartache, rather than a medical condition, and bore the pain as evidence of her shame. Historical records show it was suspected she had a ‘canker in her breast’.
Robert was entirely self-absorbed in his quest to be a ‘Dudley on the throne’, so much so, that despite loving him obsessively, Elizabeth threw him over in the end. When faced with a choice between her throne or her beloved, she chose the throne. I was not sorry for Dudley and history shows he recovered from the rejection enough to later marry Elizabeth’s lookalike cousin, although the shame of what had happened with Amy apparently tainted him for the rest of his life. GOOD!! He deserved it! I am unconvinced he truly loved Elizabeth. He certainly wouldn’t have cast his wife aside and risked all for Elizabeth is she had been a commoner. The throne was what seduced Robert Dudley, even Elizabeth came to see that. The author note at the end says Elizabeth loved Dudley for her entire life and died with a letter he wrote beside her. That she didn’t marry speaks volumes because she probably had her pick of men. I really don’t feel he was worth such devotion, not even a little bit. He was never truthful, not even to himself.
The Virgin’s Lover is a deeply passionate novel, not just in the romantic sense, but in the way people thirst for something, whether it is love, ambition, peace, or spirituality. This was such a volatile time to live in England, where money was worth nothing, worshipping was dangerous and the walls had ears. For Lady Amy Dudley, there was no hope at all, no helping hand, and no settled life. Out of the trio, I don’t think any of them were left unscathed, but at least Elizabeth and Robert escaped the scandal with their lives. The Virgin’s Lover is top drawer historical fiction, completely absorbing and with richly created characters based on the lives and historical records of notable historical figures. It is a novel though, and must be regarded as such, but as usual, Philippa Gregory has done a remarkable job of recreating events from the past in an accessible and engaging format. I highly recommend this novel with enthusiasm.
About the Author:
Philippa Gregory is the author of many bestselling novels, including The Other Boleyn Girl, and is a recognised authority on women’s history. Her Cousins’ War novels, reaching their dramatic conclusion with The King’s Curse, were the basis for the highly successful BBC series, The White Queen. Philippa’s other great interest is the charity that she founded over twenty years ago: Gardens for the Gambia. She has raised funds and paid for over 200 wells in the primary schools of this poor African country. Philippa graduated from the University of Sussex and holds a PhD and Alumna of the Year 2009 at Edinburgh University. In 2016, she received the Harrogate Festival Award for Outstanding Contribution to Historical Fiction. Philippa lives with her family on a small farm in Yorkshire and welcomes visitors to her website, www.PhilippaGregory.com
The Virgin’s Lover was published by Harper Collins in 2005. Available as paperback and eBook.