I recently finished reading (another) biography of Elizabeth, this one subtitled 'Renaissance Prince'. Yes, that's rock'n'roll me, endlessly researching these characters and events that bind together my story. This short biography gives a series of more-or-less chronologically ordered essays on a subject, some of which are entirely public, some of which attempt to get behind the mask and find out what Elizabeth was, to borrow a well-worn phrase, 'really like'. Twenty years ago, I studied the life of Augustus, the first (proper) emperor of Ancient Rome, through the various surviving things written about him. Some of those things were written by the man himself (ish - one imagines that he employed a ghost!), some by historians, some in a roundabout way by poets, and it's worth remembering both the book and TV series of I, Claudius, which gives us Robert Graves' opinion on it, although nearly two thousand years after the fact. It's worth letting (proper) historians do some of the legwork, because trying to discover letters in archives looks for all the world like a fool's errand for an amateur.
The concept of my A level was that there were two faces to Augustus, a public face which he invested time, effort and energy in controlling, and a private face which others - after the fact, for the most part - spent their own effort to try to discover. It's probably worth saying that we all wear masks and disguise what's going on so that the people around us don't think we are weird, dangerous or just unpleasant. But a public figure of Augustus's type had a much more serious job of work in managing that public profile. He wanted Rome to be a certain way, and some of his personal conduct would not have met the standards he set for the people he governed. That is to understate the case by some distance, of course. He might have been a great leader, but he certainly does not come across like a good person in several versions of the story. He managed his image ruthlessly, and it is consequently hard to get at the real person, although saying that involves making the assumption that the real person is the private person, and the mask is the public persona. Sometimes we all have to manage what other people get to know about us, and that can be anything from a kindly-meant desire to be comforting (in spite of whatever negative thing), sometimes for self-protection, right the way through to keeping hidden something deeply dangerous. Part of the fun of writing fiction is the access to the characters' motivations that you have as the writer, and trying to translate that into something which comes across as real on the page. My rule, both in my writing and necessarily in my professional life, is that the internal processes remain just as hidden in the books as they are in reality. Writing that sentence alerts me to the possibility that it is precisely because of all the stuff that I have to keep behind the mask that I have this motivation for writing in that way. I do not know, although perhaps I will figure it out at some point. I've no doubt that part of the motivation for writing these musings is to have a little space for those things which in some contexts I absolutely cannot let out. But even here, I have to admit to managing carefully what 'goes out', if nothing else to avoid the risk of looking daft, cruel, vain, or whatever it is that I risk coming across as.
So what of Elizabeth? It's obviously hard to say at a distance of nearly half a millennium what exactly she was like, and which experiences shaped her. That's my agenda. There was no Edward Strelley in reality, of course, so any theory which involves his influence in her life is absolutely fiction. But it is nevertheless entertaining and engaging (for me - not, it seems, for hordes of paperback and ebook buying folk on Amazon) to think about what it was like to be her. Lisa Hilton's book treats Elizabeth from the several angles of her personal life, her government, her image in England and outside it, and the things we can learn from all those documents that I can't be bothered with discovering. She doesn't offer any outstandingly new insight, which isn't that surprising writing about a woman who has been studied in great detail for hundreds of years, but does bring out the focus on how it must have been to be Elizabeth, a regnant queen in a Europe of male leaders, a potential wife for the ambitious, a woman whose status as queen was under constant threat of dilution by some outsider, a woman, in short, in a man's world. It's useless for me to offer any comment of the form 'she was a great woman', or even 'she was a good person', because those judgements wouldn't change what actually happened. They might be a useful idea for me to carry while writing about her, so I can frame her in the story. But her (real) story is not the story I'm trying to tell.
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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought