Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman

January 13, 2011
By , Evanston, IL
England in the mid-16th and early-17th centuries was a time when women could sit along side, and function powerfully in a male dominated world. Although its iconic queen, Elizabeth I seemed to live in a world of only men, the women around her played a subtle but essential role in the monarch and person she became. Although the book describes various women in different positions, Kat Astley, Elizabeth’s governess, was one of the important protagonists and played a constant part to the queen until her death in 1565. The two ladies faced excruciating scares through Elizabeth’s youth, especially the years of imprisonment from 1554-1556 during the reign of Mary Elizabeth’s half sister. Kat’s life was filled with person versus society conflicts because her name was linked to Elizabeth, the most controversial girl in England who was always involved in, or the victim of deadly plots. The governess was always accused of participation in her mistress’ “heretical” behavior, and often found herself in jail or interrogation for her treasonous influence. Elizabeth’s succession to the throne gave Kat a high position at court and freedom from constant speculation. From the time Kat came to Elizabeth’s entourage around 1536 until her death, she steadfastly served her friend and remained her loyal servant and confidant through the beginning of her reign.

Although the book is nonfiction, Tracy Borman does an excellent job of telling a fascinating tale. The plot and conflicts are automatically believable because they actually took place, but the author makes the plot understandable and gives logic to the characters actions. For example, when Kat persistently encourages Elizabeth to marry Thomas Seymour, a match that doesn’t seem very advantageous, Borman gives a rundown of her possible thought process, allowing readers to comprehend her reasons. The writer also gives a sense of suspense and feeling, even though the book isn’t written in story form. When Kat and Elizabeth are in prison, Tracy goes into great detail of the “dark, wet rooms, that constantly discouraged sanity” and drags out the chapter so that the reader can feel a sense of endless waiting and peril. The characters turn from historical fantasies to actual people. The author explains that Elizabeth “made many decisions based on fear, pride, guilt or favor, and didn’t always have a political calculation.” The author also shows the good and bad of each character. Although she introduces Kat as a sympathetic figure, she doesn’t brush over the fact that Kat encouraged Elizabeth’s Protestant views, probably for selfish reasons. Borman reinforces the effect culture had on the characters. Kat often times tries to dismiss Elizabeth’s French blood for fear of the anger it might evoke in her people. The characters are very developed including their background story, appearance and beliefs. Each one is materialized and real to the reader, even half a century later.

This book presented a superb picture of the Elizabethan era, and showed an accurate portrayal of England in that time. The bizarre fact that Kat Astley could face such conflict with government and society even though she had such powerful friends is rationalized, and readers gain insight to one of the world’s most famous queens through their relationship. The writer goes into great detail on the governess’ service, arrest, marriage, intrigue, and friendship to an apparently friendless monarch, while still keeping a fast pace. I would recommend this book to people who have prior knowledge and interest in the time period and to whom the subject isn’t completely novel. This marvelous book is perfect for anyone who’s as enthralled by Tudor history as I am.

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