mary and elizabeth

The front cover of the book carries the words;

“Two sisters.

United by blood,

Divided by the crown.”

These three meagre sentences form the basis of a bitter sweet story that could easily have been just another rehash of Queen Elizabeth the first’s ascension to the throne. After all the subject has already been covered very well by numerous other novelists so one might wonder what could possibly be added to make it stand out from the rest. But I suspect that Emily Purdy recognized the danger in sticking too closely to what has already been written long before she ever put pen to paper, prompting her to dig deeply into her imagination and her considerable skills as an author.

But in what way does she present this familiar piece of history in a new light? Well as the title suggests this is just as much Mary’s story as it is Elizabeth’s, so the end result is a divided narrative that manages to alternates smoothly between the lives of the two princesses without losing the reader along the way. During their early lives their paths run a parallel course only to diverge and then intersect each other at a later date. Regardless of the tragic events that befall them and their differences of opinion in both religion and matters of the heart, their fates are inextricably linked. This is of course is a historical fact which cannot be altered by the writer without losing that all important sense of authenticity. Obviously then history itself cannot be tampered with, but it can be embellished through carefully constructed characters that live and breathe amongst every page. Emily Purdy achieves just that all the way through which was confirmed for me personally by my utter distaste for rakish Tom Seymour and my heartfelt pity for Lady Jane Grey. These two individuals are relatively minor characters in relation to Mary and Elizabeth but to me they felt just as real as the central figures.

Aside from the fact that the characters almost leap from the page I must also add that she revitalizes the story with satisfyingly rich descriptions and colourful imagery. From the outset her words plunged me into the era making me feel as if I had perhaps stumbled across an eye witness account.

For instance she describes the dazzling opulence of the royal life in such florid terms that you can almost smell the crimson rose petals falling over Elizabeth’s shoulders on page 84 and “see” the Spaniards flag ship the Espiritu Santo sailing into Southampton docks followed by a colourful flotilla of smaller ships on page 289.

The only downside for me when reading this novel was the occasional awkwardness of wording and the odd monstrously long sentence. For example on page 6 she writes “But not all the cool, sweet waters in the world could soothe Henry Tudor’s troubled spirit.” This disjointed phraseology momentarily jolted me out of the story so that I had to go back and reread the sentence. It is also a great shame that she chose to include not one but two great wieldy sentences on the first page. Both of them were seven lines long in total and were so off putting that they almost made me stop reading before I had even begun. Thankfully though, this did not continue to present a problem, either because I became too involved in the plot or because the author eventually settled into her role as storyteller.

To summarise then, this is novel presents a bold tapestry of strong characters, interwoven with the innocence of childhood memories, the agony of betrayal and the scorching heat of passion. In my estimation this book is well worth reading and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in historical fiction.

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