Young Bess

By Margaret Irwin
THIS is a brilliant historical novel, and more accurate as a historical reconstruction than Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex. Elizabeth’s love for Thomas Seymour is treated as fiction but is not beyond plausibility. Many of the words assigned to Elizabeth (including the famous letter from the fifteen-year-old Princess to the Lord Protector denying her “pregnancy”) are authentic, though some of the remarks have been moved forward in time. The shrewd interpretations of the characters of Henry VIII, Mary, Jane Grey, Ascham, the Seymours, Edward VI, and the heroine herself square with what we know of them from history.
One question, worthy of ranking with Sir Thomas Browne’s concerning what song the Sirens sang, remains: What was the color of Elizabeth’s eyes? A contemporary traveler says that they were black, Virginia Woolf would have them yellow, the present author makes them greenblue. My own guess would be that they were dark russet — almost black — the usual complement to Welsh red-gold hair. That is a minor mystery. If the present book does not succeed in unlocking the major mystery of Elizabeth’s heart, it is, at any rate, an inspired invention in excellent taste and of high interest.