August 5th, 2010

the red queen.

Review: His Last Letter by Jeane Westin

His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester

by Jeane Westin


The Virgin Queen of England, Elizabeth I, has depended on the love and support of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for thirty years.  They were playmates as children, and locked in the Tower together under the reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister, Queen Mary.    When Mary died, and Elizabeth became Queen, she and her “sweet Robin” were recklessly infatuated with each other.  But year after year went by, and though Elizabeth piled gifts and titles upon Robert, she never gave him that which he wanted most – her hand in marriage.  Through countless quarrels, Elizabeth’s flirtations with the princes of Europe, Robert’s marriages, and endless jealousies the two remain united in their hearts.  Now, when Elizabeth should be celebrating her great victory over the Spanish armada, she sits silent and lost in memories, holding Leicester’s last letter and mourning the loss of her great love.


For the most part, His Last Letter focuses on the last three years of Leicester’s life, when he and Elizabeth are mostly resigned to their roles in life.  He is her most faithful servant; she is the proud Virgin Queen.  But the book jumps all over time, as memories are wont to do, so we also see the two lovers throughout their youth, too.


One of my favorite parts of the book was a brief time when Elizabeth toyed with the idea of marrying Leicester to Mary, Queen of Scots.  She is so resistant to sharing power that she would never marry Robert herself, but she considers raising him up to be a king in Scotland because no one would protect her interests more loyally.  Although the plan never comes to fruition – and Elizabeth admits to herself that she was never entirely serious about it – it really showed just how dedicated Elizabeth was to protecting her position, no matter what the cost would be to her personal life.


More than any other fictional account of Elizabeth’s life I’ve read, Westin also focuses on how Elizabeth’s strained relationship with her father damaged her ability to have a normal relationship.  In the case of her own mother, and Henry VIII’s subsequent wives, the young Elizabeth saw how quickly a woman’s lot could change based on the whims of her husband.  Queen Elizabeth hoarded her power so jealously partly due to fear that any man she raised up to be her husband would one day be able to cast her aside as her father had done to so many of his women.  


A bittersweet tale of a romance that could never be, His Last Letter was a fantastic story that explored the fragile balance between Elizabeth, the woman and Elizabeth, the Queen and her consort in all but name, the Earl of Leicester.   


4 out of 5 stars


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