Anne Barnhill may have mixed emotions when she reads historical novels. If they are well written, she enjoys them, as she did the one she reviews here. But, since Anne is also hard at work on her own first historical novel, she is likely also analyzing why she enjoys the books she reads – which, come to think of it, is what any good reviewer does. Anne’s novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. She lives in Garner.
By Anne Clinard Barnhill
HIS LAST LETTER. By Jeane Westin. New American Library. 355 pages. $16, paperback.
The book begins when young Elizabeth, age 25, gains the crown upon her sister, Mary’s, death. This is a time of heady freedom for the new queen and her childhood friend, Lord Robert, whom she quickly makes her Master of the Horse. In this position, Lord Robert is with her frequently, riding beside her on the hunt and making sure she has the fastest, strongest steeds when she wishes to explore her realm. In a very short time, the entire Court is talking about the Queen and her paramour.
Through Westin’s sure prose, we are able to watch the slow ripening of love as well as the nascent development of the most revered Tudor queen of all time – Gloriana. Striking just the right balance between meticulous research and fictive imagination, Westin spins a tale that is satisfying both intellectually and emotionally, with a psychological resonance that elevates this story from the realm of specific individuals to the universal. In other words, this novel does what good books do – they touch us in as many ways as possible and remind us of what it means to be human.
Told in alternating points of view, his and hers, the story flashes back and forth over the long span of Good Queen Bess and her Sweet Robin’s love affair. The time travel is not confusing but clear – one chapter leads easily to the next. And, though we will never know the character and personality of a historical figure, Westin puts flesh on the bones of fact, and these people live once again.
Lord Robert Dudley paces in the hall outside the royal apartments in the Tower, where every English kind and queen, by custom, spent the night before their coronation. He had dressed carefully for Elizabeth in his new heavily embroidered black velvet suit, snowy white ruff and cuffs, a cuirass of polished, beaten silver spanning his chest, a fur-lined cape thrown over one shoulder and his feathered cap atilt over his right eye. Scarlet knit hosen outlined his long legs, and his feet were shod in black Spanish boots oiled to a bright sheen. The polished steel mirror at the far end of the anteroom showed his full image to his great satisfaction, reflecting the jewels on his sword hilt as they sparkled in the torchlight. He was satisfied that he would make a grand appearance that day, the most important of his life as well as Elizabeth’s.
The attention to detail and the subtle revelation of character follow throughout the book as Westin paints the Royal Court with vivid strokes. This is a wonderful book! Thumbs up!