Rival to the Queen

Written by Carolly Erickson
Review by Michael I. Shoop

Not since Victoria Holt’s My Enemy the Queen (1978) have I encountered another novel about the complex rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her younger, more attractive Boleyn cousin, Lettice Knollys. Lively and intelligent, the teenaged Lettice arrived at the Queen’s court and quickly adapted and flourished in her surroundings, eventually inserting herself into the longstanding relationship between Sir Robert Dudley and Elizabeth. While Elizabeth deeply loved Dudley and appreciated his service to the Crown, her reasons not to marry him were solidified after his wife’s mysterious death; Lettice, however, had no such qualms. Attracted to each other but with marital entanglements, she and Dudley were later married in secret, enraging Elizabeth once they were exposed at court.

Bitter conflicts ensued over the years, culminating with the Earl of Essex’s (Lettice’s handsome, hot-headed son) disastrous involvement with the aging queen. Erickson does a fine job with period details, but many of her characterizations seem rather flat and uninspired. Some of her dialogue sounds jarringly modern, and some events seem contrived beyond belief. It seems implausible that Elizabeth would covet the dead Amy Dudley’s bed hangings, send Lettice to retrieve them, and that while there, Lettice uncovers the “truth” about Amy’s death. Her inaccuracies regarding some characters’ relationships seem needless when the facts are well known: e.g., the marital choices of Dorothy Devereux and of Lettice’s brother Francis. There is an inconsistency when Elizabeth speaks to Cecil at Kenilworth at the end of Chapter 28, even though Cecil is just arriving at Kenilworth at the start of Chapter 29.

Overall, while Erickson’s account is entertaining and highly readable, ultimately I found it rather unsatisfying. Holt’s version is still the better by a “long English mile.”