The Heart and Stomach of a King: Queen Elizabeth’s influence on female characters in historical fiction
Elizabeth I is one of the most iconic women in English history. Partly this is because she survived to a ripe old age, but partly it is because of her indomitable personality. If people are asked to think of an influential woman from history, they invariably place her in their top five.
Whilst I was writing my last novel, I wondered how the image of Elizabeth has influenced our perception of what a heroine is, and how this might have filtered into our writing. To explore this, I talked to Jenny Barden, who has just released The Lost Duchess, a novel set partly at Queen Elizabeth’s court.
I asked Jenny to tell me what she thought were the reasons for Elizabeth’s strength of character. She said, “There must have been conflicts within her stemming from her mother’s execution and her father’s fluctuating treatment of his six wives, albeit that some of them he plainly loved deeply for a while. Her anxieties would have been compounded by the upheavals in religion during her formative years, changes that were directly related to the rifts within her own family. She grew from a vulnerable girl, wooed and quite possibly seduced by her stepfather, through being under threat of losing her life as her sister’s prisoner, to a monarch with absolute power whom even her enemies respected. Yet the conflicts continued, between her duties as a sovereign and her desires as a woman, her physical frailty and her iron-strong resolve.”
As a monarch, Elizabeth’s achievements were vast. She united the nation, defeated the famous Spanish Armada, and began ventures into the New World. She was one of the longest reigning, most successful monarchs in history with a rich cultural legacy we still call “The Golden Age”. It struck me that Elizabeth was instrumental in shifting the perception of women in society, and served to make the nation as a whole re-address the capability of women as leaders. The ability to take the lead and not be purely reactive is often considered to be a key quality for creating female characters in fiction; perhaps Elizabeth was the prototype. This is not to say that characters from an earlier era can’t be strong, just that Elizabeth made it more believable that they should be so. Partly of course this is due to the great flowering of literature that her reign produced – and the emergence of such unforgettable characters as Kate in Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew or Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
Consider the resolve in Elizabeth I’s famous speech to the troops at Tilbury:
“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm…”
This speech makes it clear that Queen Elizabeth embodied many characteristics that we think of as male. When I asked Jenny whether she thought “male” characteristics of strength were essential for a female protagonist in a historical novel, she pointed out that there’s some doubt as to whether Elizabeth actually said these words at all. (In the only eyewitness account, by James Aske, his quotes of the Queen are very different from the more famous rendition later published and circulated.) But the “heart and stomach of a King” speech has come to encapsulate the image of Elizabeth she sought to project, and it’s now embedded in our national consciousness.
“I see Elizabeth as the quintessential female protagonist in history,” Jenny said. “She not only created her own image as Gloriana but set a model for heroines, which has persisted for generations.”
So how did that play out in her own novel? “In The Lost Duchess, the main character, Emme Fifield, mirrors Elizabeth’s fortitude. She does not have the Queen’s power, but she has a similar level of courage and endurance, and in the end she is prepared to lay down her life to save her countrymen.”
So are these male characteristics essential for a female protagonist in historical fiction? Jenny and I agreed they were not essential. Many excellent novels have been written about women in history who were not so bold and strong. In The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn, for example, neither Katherine, nor Cat Tilney through whom the story is related, are particularly valiant and intrepid, but they are nonetheless fascinating as characters. “I think the liberated world in which we now live, a world in which most readers of historical fiction will be accustomed to women showing independence of spirit, having female protagonists who are bold and brave makes empathy with them that much easier,” Jenny said.
Mary Balogh presents the problem succinctly on her website: “On the one hand readers want heroines they can admire and identify with. They want a strong, assertive, independent woman who can stand alone and does not need to cling to her man for either support or protection. On the other hand, they want heroines who are historically believable.”
When writing A Divided Inheritance, set just after Elizabeth’s reign in 1609, I felt it was important for my female character to take control of her own destiny, rather than just be reactive. I wanted to explore what it might be like for a woman to enter the all-male world of sword-fighting. At the same time, I wanted to create a genuine sense of the period, of how difficult, in terms of cultural mind-set, this might be.
“Of course, there is a certain arrogance in writing historical fiction at all since one can’t really say he understands his friends, let alone a person he’s never met, in a historical period that precedes his own,” maintains Ron Hansen in The Ethics of Fiction Writing. “But that arrogance is mitigated by extensive research, and it seems to me the rules of the game require the boundaries of good guesses about what was earlier said and done, without varying from the factual or probable.”
So researching a change in attitude, the fact that England was still mourning Queen Elizabeth, and the knowledge that the nation had seen her, a woman, have absolute power over her own destiny, made my character’s journey more believable. Even then, I had to be aware that there was still considerable residual opposition to the idea of a female monarch in some quarters. John Knox said, “It is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above a man.” After her death however, although Elizabeth’s rigid control over her court made her in some senses a despot, she was almost universally admired.
Jenny was quick to point out the limitations of Elizabeth’s power. ‘”The chief irony of Elizabeth’s situation was that she took control of her destiny by refusing to marry,” Jenny said, “yet that must have meant she could never find fulfilment either in love or motherhood. In the midst of the splendour and bustle at court, her iron-willed independence condemned her to loneliness. Emme sees this in The Lost Duchess, and sets out to do something that she knows the Queen never can: travel to the New World and risk everything to start a new life. Early on in the story, Emme is cruelly violated, but she is not left a helpless victim. She is scarred by her ordeal, and cannot bear the touch of any man, but she devises a plan that will enable her to change her life, rather than remain in misery within reach of her abuser. I do think it’s important for characters to take control of what happens to them, not simply react to events and appear to be trapped by circumstances. We all like to identify with those who are proactive; characters who mope are not very attractive!”
In other words, the character must demonstrate a healthy self-respect, own the courage of her convictions, and be able to walk away (even with difficulty) from personal or professional relationships that sabotage her greater good. Coming back to Jenny’s point about Elizabeth’s refusal to marry, I think the “virgin” element of Elizabeth was important for her as a Queen, but this strength of will is also, I believe, important for our female heroines. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, especially in fiction, but I suspect that the sense of the character having some moral substance makes them easier for a reader to identify with.
It was absolutely crucial for Elizabeth to preserve her reputation as virtuous. Jenny told me she noticed during her research that the subject came up time and again in reports and correspondence between ambassadors and dignitaries. During the early part of her reign, Elizabeth’s virginity was essential to maintain her desirability as a marriage prospect for powerful princes – to keep them courting her rather than taking up arms against her. Once her childbearing years were over, her virginity became synonymous with her image as Gloriana: pure and unblemished.
“She was a sovereign wed to her country rather than any single man,” Jenny maintains. “Rumours about her supposed promiscuity would surface intermittently, fuelled by her obvious affection for favourites such as the Earl of Leicester and Sir Christopher Hatton, only to fizzle out through lack of evidence. The Queen’s ladies were often bribed to reveal all they knew, but, as Baron Brewer reported to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, ‘The Queen’s ladies swear by all that is holy that her Majesty has most certainly never been forgetful of her honour.’ Nothing was ever substantiated to suggest that Elizabeth had sexual relations with any man.”
For historical novelists, the temptation to suggest secret affairs and bastard children has been considerable – and why not? There are many good stories to be had out of that possibility. Was this very likely, I wondered? Jenny thinks not. “Too much was at risk, not least England’s security and freedom. If Elizabeth had married then that would inevitably have shifted power away from her and towards her husband and issue, either to the benefit of another state or noble line, at the risk of loss of independence, both national and religious, and possibly civil war. The same logic restrained her from declaring her successor until the bitter end, and I feel sure it would have curtailed any inclination she might have had to succumb to the advances of any of her male admirers. Tied up with these considerations must have been macabre associations between sex and death buried deep in Elizabeth’s psyche. Her mother had been executed by her father; her step-father, the first man to woo her, had been executed by her brother. Elizabeth must have yearned for love yet been terrified of its consequences.”
In Jenny’s book, The Lost Duchess, Emme suffers the ultimate degradation of being raped by a nobleman at court about whom she cannot complain, knowing that the blame will be hers if anyone finds out. This is the main impetus for her desire to escape to the New World and the land of Virginia, named after the virgin queen. Emme sees the opportunity for a fresh start, free from the constraints at court and the man who abused her. Jenny said there is an obvious parallel between Emme’s defiling and the infiltration of Virginia by English settlers. The land is perceived at first as another Eden, bountiful and uncorrupted, but is soon revealed to have been spoiled by contact with previous invaders, so that almost immediately the settlers are faced with a knife-edge struggle to survive.
Emme’s journey to the New World and a new vision of herself embodies the spirit of Elizabeth:
I thank God that I am endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.
The Lost Duchess by Jenny Barden is published by Ebury Press.
Deborah Swift’s latest novel A Divided Inheritance is published by Pan Macmillan.
About the Contributor: Deborah Swift is the author of three novels set in the 17th century, and one for young adults – coming soon! She lives in the north of England close to the coast, near the Georgian town of Lancaster, famous for its castle, its maritime Museum and its numerous tempting coffee shops.
Posted by Claire Morris