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Book Review: Young Bess: The Girl Who Would Be Queen by Margaret Irwin

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Originally published in 1944, historical novelist Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess is slated for republication in early March through the Sourcebooks Landmark imprint which resurrects notable vintage titles. Having been reprinted several times since its original publication, Young Bess remains an exquisitely captivating look into the life of the young Princess Elizabeth.

Since my first viewing of Cate Blanchett’s moving portrayal of the young Queen in Elizabeth (2001) I have been unable to shake a growing interest in the life of this incredibly memorable woman. Young Bess gives readers an immaculate researched look into the life of this unforgettable woman from her young childhood through to the age of 19, when her brother, King Edward, died. This first installment in Irwin’s trilogy focuses mainly upon Elizabeth’s life between the ages of 13 and 16, highlighting the many political and romantic tensions that shaped her coming of age.

From the first few pages of Young Bess it immediately becomes apparent that this is not a contemporary novel – I’ve never read historical fiction like this from a modern author. Readers are plunged into an intricate cast of characters from nobility through to tutors, governesses, and whipping boys. Those not intimately familiar with the time period will need some time to adjust to the cast, and indeed, a second read-through may be in order once everything is sorted from the first time through.

Irwin clearly delights in the nuances of the not-yet stabilized English language of the 1500s, and is quick to include quotations from period songs, poetry, and selections of actual correspondence between the historical characters as appropriate. Though I’m no Elizabethan historican, Young Bess bears all the markings of a faithful portrayal of girl who would be queen.

Irwin’s desire to include the political and religious conflicts, alliances, and issues of the day also leads her to do much expository ‘telling’ rather than the ever-vaunted ‘showing’ that is so valued in contemporary fiction. There can be pages of these explanations, and yet, she also captures the imagination and sweeps readers into the intimate world of Elizabeth’s very nature, and those whose lives most affected her own young one.

With growing inclusions of explicit sensuality and occult references in general market historical fiction, some readers may be leery of the genre in general. While romantic tension (some kissing), and some small amount of period-appropriate cursing and oaths are included in the text, this is a clean but passionately written novel. Parents looking for an Elizabeth novel for their children should be aware that much of the content revolves around the budding love between the young Princess and the Lord Admiral, Tom Seymour – an older (mid-thirties to her mid-teens), and at times married man.

I’m thankful to Sourcebooks Landmark for keeping Irwin’s work in print; her portrayal of this complicated, old-before-her-time girl child is striking and unforgettable.

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About Jennifer Bogart

  • Kim

    Cate Blanchett’s movie Elizabeth is also what started my now obsession with this great queen.
    Part II and III are also great of the Margaret Irwin triology.
    My favorite Tudor author is Allison Weir, although she is not much of a fan of the movie Elizabeth – due to the non factual elements; I can forgive her for that.

  • Indeed, Kim. Aside from a rather fictionalized account of the great queen, Blanchett’s performance was electrifying. She’d proved herself to be one of the greatest actresses of our generation.

    Since we’re on the subject, you owe it to yourself to check out another film of the period, The Other Boleyn Girl, with Natalie Portman.

  • Thanks for the author lead Kim!

    It is tricky at times to separate fact from fiction without the aid of helpful “Note from the Author” sections, so films need a particularly discerning eye. That being said, I’ve also greatly enjoyed Elizabeth: The Golden Age the second Elizabeth film.