An account of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, her lady aides, favourites, and a good deal of royal gossip
The problem with Anna Whitelock’s book is that it is not quite sure what it wants to be. It sells itself titillatingly as an exposé of Queen Elizabeth I’s many legendary lovers, hence the title Elizabeth’s Bedfellows. In reality, ‘bedfellows’ refers to the Ladies of the Bedchamber, the female intimates of the queen who were most privy to her moods and health, the most immediate objects of her affection or peeves, and the ones with the easiest access to her royal presence. We have no complaints with the story being about these ladies, intriguing as their roles are, but the book sadly does not quite do them justice. What could have been an exclusive narrative about these hardy women becomes a mere side-bar in an overall biography of the queen.
We do get enough of an insight into their bizarre world to come away with the impression that being a Lady of the Bedchamber was no walk in the park — nothing short of serious illness was excuse to stay away from serving the queen, pregnant Ladies had to give up the infant to a wet nurse and return to duty immediately; marrying without her consent (hard to get) would result in reprimand, banishment, even physical cuffs. Mary Sidney attended day and night on the queen when she was struck by smallpox. When Mary herself ended up with a pock-scarred face as a result, the queen sent her away in disgust. Salaries were a pittance, the lodgings often mean and the queen’s affection fickle.
Queen’s two bodies
The book also deals with the idea of the queen’s two bodies — the one a representation of the state itself, the other the physical body of a woman, a duality that Elizabeth herself flaunted. Whitelock touches upon how multiple partners and sexual potency would have been seen as a sign of political and physical power in a king but were seen as moral corruption in a queen. A king’s body might represent the body politic, but what he chose to do with it in private was his business. Not so for the queen. Her chastity, or at any rate a reputation of chastity, became symbolic of the nation’s purity itself. Elizabeth’s purity, her physicality and health, her child-bearing capacity, even her menstruation is the topic of heated discussion not just in England’s political circles but also in the highest royal and diplomatic circles of Spain, France, Portugal and other nations.
And in the end, the book is overwhelmingly about this aspect of the queen. It is a gossipy, intensely recorded account of Elizabeth’s intimate relationships with her many favourites, the endless debate about her marriage and virginity, Elizabeth’s own cunningly political use of her body and of promises of marriage, and a litany of the Catholic faction’s many plots to assassinate her. It becomes, in fact, despite its scholarly tone, an almost domestic and very human account of the royal household.
As it delves into letters, ambassador accounts, private diaries, conversations, and semi-pornographic pamphlets, it is amusing to note that there is not much difference between the sheer intensity of interest in the queen’s body in the 16 century and Britain’s present-day obsession with its royal family’s private lives.
This angle, however, also means that Elizabeth comes across as a peculiarly unidimensional personality. Where is her political acumen? Where her ability as ruler and administrator? We are given ample examples of the queen displaying her dancing skills and décolletage, but none of her diplomatic or legislative skills. Is it fair to imagine then that the promise of marriage was practically the only foreign affairs tool she used? Hers was a 44-year reign that came to be called the Elizabethan Age. An age that saw the Renaissance coming to full flower in England, the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe in literature, of Drake in expedition. But none of the excitement of this period comes through. Of course, one might argue that the bedchamber is Whitelock’s brief but given the fair bit of repetition and redundancies in the text, it could have served this scholarly work well to have rather included some background and a more holistic depiction of the subject. For the average Indian reader, for instance, this could well be the only work they read on Elizabeth.
Despite this grumble, it’s also true that as an account of the queen’s actual bedchamber, the book does its job well. There is endless speculation about whether Elizabeth consummated her various intimacies, especially with Robert Dudley. The kingdom pleads with her to marry and leave an heir to the throne, but she keeps Parliament and her closest peers dangling till the very end. It is impossible to know why she chooses to remain single, but in her steadfast insistence on doing so and her defiant flirtations with her favourites, she raises our admiration. It cannot have been easy to stay single in that age, but Elizabeth had quickly realised the political cachet of doing so and to adroitly use the epithet of Virgin Queen to great effect.
Most important, the book is an in-depth study of a royal British household in the 16 century — from the disguise and disposal of chamber pots in the bedroom to the potpourri sachets the women used to mask body odours. From the queen’s blackened teeth and withered skin to the layers of face paint she was whitened with. From medicines and menus, to the fans and hand-me-down gowns the queen gave her ladies. The book is a treasury of the quotidian life of a queen. And that’s quite invaluable.
ELIZABETH’S BEDFELLOWS — An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court: Anna Whitelock; Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt. Ltd., VISHRUT Building No 3, DDA Complex, Ground Floor, Pocket C 6&7, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 599.