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I have enjoyed reading Robin Maxwell's historical novels, even though I don't always agree with her characterisations of certain persons, or her choices in terms of their actions. The Queen's Bastard is another such book - well-researched and written, fun to read, but not featuring "my" Queen Elizabeth.

Maxwell's premise is that Elizabeth not only consummated her relationship with Robert Dudley, but that early in her reign, she conceived and secretly bore him a son. As difficult as such a thing would have been to hide in the Tudor Court, Maxwell does manage to effectively present a just-barely-possible scenario. The complete disappearance of the child from history is explained by a secret plot-within-a-plot by Kat Ashley and William Cecil to replace the live baby with a dead one, convincing both Elizabeth and Dudley that their son did not survive birth.

The novel is structured such that we alternate between reading sections of a kind of autobiography written by the adult child of Elizabeth - interesting for their look at the life of a child raised as the younger son of a minor country gentleman who follows the path of many younger sons and runs away to become a soldier - and sections from Elizabeth's perspective detailing key points in her reign, with particular focus on the public events that shaped what is known about her relationship with Dudley.

It must be noted that Maxwell has based her novel on a real incident. Not long before the launch of the Spanish Armada, an Englishman giving his name as Arthur Dudley was arrested and interrogated by the Spanish before being placed in prison and disappearing from historical record. He claimed to be the bastard son of Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, and the story he gave to his interrogators formed the basis of Maxwell's story. Most historians have dismissed Arthur Dudley as either a pretender or an English spy telling a wild tale in an attempt to save his life.

Certainly, when cast as fiction, it is intriguing but not quite credible, to my mind. But once one suspends one's disbelief, it makes - in Maxwell's hands at least - a fine and enjoyable novel.

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And I'm back to my fascination with the Tudors. This time it's Robin Maxwell's novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.

Maxwell begins the novel early in the reign of Elizabeth I, and presents us with a vibrant young woman, so in love with Robert Dudley that she risks her reputation and position to take him as her lover. When an aged lady in waiting to Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn appears with a diary Anne had secretly kept and given to her companion just before her death, this sets up a doubled narrative tracing the progress of Anne's relationship with Henry, and Elizabeth's with Dudley.

It has been suggested by some that Elizabeth's reluctance to marry was in part driven by a deep mistrust of men founded in the relationships of Henry with Anne - which Elizabeth would know about but probably not remember clearly - and with the young Catherine Howard, who was executed when Elizabeth was a young girl. In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth comes to distrust men after reading her mother's account of her relationship with Henry, which in turn influences her own response when Dudley's wife is found dead.

A quick read that presents the well-known stories of two Tudor women and the men in their lives in a new and captivating way.

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I have a Tudor bug now, it seems, and have been picking at the books dealing with that era in my TBR pile. Today's selection, Robin Maxwell's novel Virgin: Prelude to the Throne, is a rather short and somewhat overblown novel dealing with a rather short period of Elizabeth Tudor's life - the two years following her father's death.

What is historical record is that Thomas Seymour, one of the uncles of the young king Edward VI, secretly married the Dowager Queen, Catherine Parr, within a few months of Henry's death in January 1547. Seymour took up residence in Catherine's household at Chelsea House, where Princess Elizabeth was also living. Later accounts suggest that Seymour was sexually aggressive toward Elizabeth during this period, and that eventually she was sent away from Chelsea House to live in Sir Anthony Denny's household at Cheshunt.

Meanwhile, Catherine Part became pregnant, and died shortly following the birth of her daughter Mary Seymour. Now free, Thomas Seymour attempted to press his suit with Elizabeth. At the same time, Seymour was planning a coup to remove his brother Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, from power and assume control of the young king himself.

Thomas Seymour was arrested following an attempt to approach the King in his private chambers, charged with treason, and executed. Elizabeth and her staff were questioned, but while the staff reported Seymour's behaviour toward Elizabeth and confessed to promoting the idea of a marriage, no involvement in Seymour's schemes - or participation in what would for the times be thought gross immorality - on Elizabeth's part was ever proven.

Over the years, many authors have taken a variety of approaches to this period of Elizabeth's life. Some have followed the rumours of the time that Seymour and Elizabeth had a sexual relationship and that her removal to Cheshunt was to cover up a pregnancy. Others have held Elizabeth to be an innocent forced by circumstances to endure advances she found wholly unwelcome. Maxwell has taken the position that the adolescent princess was swept up in her first sexual awakening by an ambitious and experienced adult's seduction plan, and that while she was unwise and took far too many risks, she emerged from the tumultuous time still a virgin, and innocent of everything but a dangerous and all-encompassing infatuation. In this story, Seymour is beyond all doubt the villain. I'm not sure I agree with Maxwell's characterisation of Elizabeth in this novel, but it made for a quick and pleasant read.

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Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

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Last year was a year for historical novels of many flavours. I've already discussed the historical mysteries I enjoyed, but there were other multi-genre historical novels to be read kast year.

I finally caught up with Diana Gabaldon's twin historical-tine travel fantasy series, just in time for the upcoming release of the next Outlander novel. I'm looking forward to that, and also, I hope, to more of the Lord John books. 

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade
Diana Gabaldon, The Scottish Prisoner
Diana Gabaldon, An Echo in the Bone

Another multi-genre book I happened across was Paula Brackston's now-and-then historical/paranormal fantasy novel The Witch's Daughter. Told in two different times, it's the story of a woman whose mother was hanged as a witch in 1628 and who survives into modern times by learning witchcraft herself from a powerful but vengeful warlock. Brackston seems to have written several more books in a similar vein, and this one was interesting enough that I anticipate reading more of her books.

Then there was the somewhat unclassifiable Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, by Robin Maxwell, who is known for her historical novels. Jane is a retelling of the Tarzan story from the perspective of the woman who loves and civilises him, but Maxwell makes Jane even more interesting and unconventional than Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to do (and considering his times, and his focus on Tarzan as his hero her actually did rather well at it). A cross between historical fantasy and literary hommage, Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan should delight ERB fans and feminists alike.

And finally, I read two more novels in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's marvellous historical vampire series. As ever, I enjoyed these novels greatly, both for the historical accuracy and for the chance to experience yet more chapters in the endlessly fascinating life of the Count Saint Germain. 

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, A Dangerous Climate
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Commedia della Morte


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