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Review: Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain by Margaret Irwin

22/04/2011

A truncated version of this review appeared on Luxury Reading April 21, 2011. For that version, click here.

Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain is the third in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy about young Elizabeth Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn who would become Elizabeth I. It is 1554: Elizabeth is under house arrest at the order of her half-sister, Queen Mary I, and faces the constant threat of execution. When Mary weds Prince Philip of Spain, he becomes central to Elizabeth’s struggle for survival.

England is still reeling from religious reformation begun in the 1520s and carried on through the short reign of the Protestant King Edward VI. Mary is determined to bring England back into the Catholic Church at any cost and believes an alliance with Spain will help her do that — and, at 42 years old, she desperately hopes to conceive a son and to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession once and for all.

Philip, meanwhile, is an unhappy bridegroom fifteen years his bride’s junior and cautiously disdainful of her love for him, which borders on obsession. His curiosity is piqued by rumors surrounding the Lady Elizabeth. Is she truly loyal to her sister and to the Catholic Church, or is she playing an elaborate game to mask an intent to inherit her father’s throne? Is she more of a threat to Philip dead…or alive? When the two meet face to face Philip is entranced by Elizabeth’s wit and strength, and he finds he must balance his royal convictions with a growing and inconvenient desire for the younger Tudor sister.

Irwin’s story stayed true to Tudor history, which I appreciated; however, her overlong descriptions detract from a story that needs little help to be extraordinary. Her characterizations, likewise, were hit and miss. The fragile and paranoid Mary evokes simultaneous empathy and horror through her obsequious devotion to her husband and her zeal for religious reform. She is ill-equipped to handle the vast responsibility of ruling, and she fades before the reader’s eyes even as Elizabeth is poised to blind England with her radiance. Elizabeth is eternally regal and so expertly calculating that even the canniest reader cannot be sure what is genuine, and what is an act.

The problem with Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, unfortunately, is the Prince of Spain. Irwin’s Philip is whiny, brooding, spiteful and unbearable. He is burdened by his own feelings of inadequacy, and a distaste bordering on contempt for both his father and his son. Even when it was warranted, I was unable to muster any sympathy for him or to feel anything but vague discomfort during the exchanges between him and Elizabeth. Moreover, Irwin devotes far more attention to Philip than she does to her titular heroine, who doesn’t appear until Chapter Seven. It often felt like I was reading Philip and the Tudors.

Overall, devotees of Tudor history will find the story compelling and a decent read, and will excuse Irwin’s writing as the product of a bygone age (Elizabeth was first released in 1953). I didn’t read Irwin’s first two books, Young Bess: The Girl Who Would Be Queen and Elizabeth, Captive Princess, but I will likely pick this one up again once I have.

Rating: 3/5

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