During my time in England, I have consumed an extraordinary number of BBC documentaries (and the occasional drama) about Britain’s long, bloody, occasionally confused history. Some of these covered the Plantagenets, but the lion’s share tend to drift decidedly towards the Tudors. Even the brutal episodes of internecine family bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses have nothing on slow-motion car crash that is Henry VIII’s six wives, Reformation, and Elizabethan England. In The Marriage Game, Alison Weir focuses on the politics involved in Elizabeth I’s marriage (or lack thereof) and how this influenced her relationship with Robert Dudley, the man most historians have labelled her lover in all of the various ways.
Marriage now can still, occasionally, be the bond that cements alliances in the vast dynastic power struggles between great houses. But not so much as it was in Elizabeth’s time. And Weir gives us a very good idea of the significance that Elizabeth’s marriage would have for England and for the rest of Europe. In a time where a Protestant England was a new and threatening prospect for Europe, Elizabeth’s marriage was about more than controlling or ruling England. It had direct bearing on the issues of who wielded absolute power over religious matters in Europe in that age. The religion of Elizabeth’s suitors, as well as that of her rival Mary Queen of Scots, would play a large role in determining Elizabeth’s moves in this marriage game.
It’s Elizabeth who refers to the matter of her marriage as a game in an attempt to trivialize what is, for her, a terrifying prospect. Weir shows how Elizabeth has to walk a very careful line. Her Parliament and advisers are pressing her for a marriage, both because they doubt her ability, as a woman, to rule, and because it would strengthen England and provide allies against the enmity of France and Spain. Elizabeth, understandably, is worried about the effect of marriage on her sovereignty as a ruler—a fear compounded by what happens to Mary after her marriage to Darnley. But she recognizes the precarious position that England is in. Into this mix Weir adds the complicating factor of her own speculation about what befell Elizabeth when she was a teenager in the care of Thomas Seymour. The Marriage Game paints Elizabeth as every bit the complicated person she should be, even if it’s not quite the likeable character we’d like her to be.
Elizabeth kind of comes across as a horrible and manipulative person. Her vacillation with regards to marrying Dudley is very annoying. Whenever she decides to renege on what was a fervent pledge to marry him, she buys him off with a title or land or a castle. (And it works, because in the end he’s more concerned with his worldly advancement than with actually being married to Elizabeth—but he still wants to get in her pants at the earliest opportunity.) As Elizabeth gets older and her marriage prospects diminish, the harsh and vindictive parts of her personality only seem to heighten. I don’t agree with those reviewers who assert that these unlikeable aspects of Elizabeth’s personality necessarily make her unsympathetic as a character. I can sympathize with Elizabeth’s dilemma and the emotions that motivate her to act in these ways, even if I don’t particularly like what she does as a result.
Certainly what Weir emphasizes above all else is the sense of loneliness that Elizabeth must have felt. She was a woman without peer. Her closest friends are some of her ladies in waiting who had been companions since her tumultuous years as a young adult during Edward and Mary’s brief reigns. But they don’t really understand the pressure she experiences as a woman monarch. Her most intimate confidante is Robert himself, and he isn’t exactly an impartial party. So it’s not a surprise that Elizabeth projects her uneasiness onto Mary Queen of Scots. Though Mary is a deadly rival, she is, like Elizabeth, a woman struggling to rule a kingdom with deep religious divides. It galls Elizabeth that Mary has no problem taking a husband and producing “an heir of her body,” despite the fact that Elizabeth’s failure to do so is ultimately a decision she made. Yet despite Mary’s clear involvement in plots against Elizabeth, Elizabeth is still horrified by the prospect of executing another country’s (deposed) monarch.
As a character study, The Marriage Game is an insightful look into this interpretation of Elizabeth. Yet at times Weir leans too much on character to drive the story. Her expertise as a non-fiction author shines through here. A novel, by definition, really needs a plot. I don’t remember The Captive Queen being as dull as the events here. Told in yearly chapters, the story here feels episodic but repetitive, with the same scenes being repeated over the years as Elizabeth’s advisers tell her to marry and she throws a strop (thanks, England, for the vocabulary). It is definitely interesting, but only to a point.
The Marriage Game retells and reexamines Elizabeth I’s reign through the lens of her marriage negotiations. Weir does an excellent job demonstrating how important this single part of Elizabeth’s life was, both to her as a person and to her realm. She interrogates the motivations behind Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry and Robert Dudley’s desire for her hand. As a story, it feels very flat—there’s plenty of drama, but it’s of the one-note variety. As a history, however, it’s interesting and enlightening. I won’t call it the best or most memorable piece of historical fiction I’ve read, but I certainly enjoyed Weir’s perspective and speculation on England’s Virgin Queen.