THE later court of Henry VIII, that bejeweled tragedy of blood of which the child Elizabeth Tudor was the spectator, is the major subject of Miss Sitwell’s new book. Using the word “fanfare” in its theatrical sense to denote the entrance of royalty on the stage, the author recalls the sinister and hideous strains — the weeping of doomed queens, the thud of the executioner’s axe — which pervaded Elizabeth’s girlhood.
The book ends with Elizabeth’s own first ordeal as a suspected person under the reign of her half brother, when Admiral Seymour was brought to the block for aspiring to her hand. She was then only fifteen, and ten years, ten dangerous years, were to elapse before she came to the throne. Miss Sitwell’s purpose in using the Seymour incident as her climax is to show that the Admiral’s indiscretions and the common scandal attendant on them permanently scarred the name of the magnificent and benign despot who, as Gloriana, finally emerged from these horrors.
The author attempts no solution of the enigmas of this most enigmatic age. “We shall never know the truth and can only speculate in the matter.” This is a wise course and the opposite to that followed by Strachey. Furthermore, fortified by abundant sources, Miss Sitwell is aware, as Strachey never was, that any fictional embellishment of facts already teeming with drama would be folly. “What are you to do,” she asks, “with a being which even in childhood has an alien greatness . . . who is doomed to a history like that of the sun, a life of grandeur and loneliness and all-seeing wisdom?”
To appreciate this excellent book one must already be equipped with some knowledge of the period, for there is little chronological order here; characters die and are brought to life again and again. Yet the effect — possibly because of an exquisite use of valid pictorial detail — is no more confusing than the mediaeval pictures in which at one glance we can move forward or backward among the episodes that compose a biography.
“The life of Elizabeth,” to quote J. R. Green’s noble phrase, “a life so great, so strange and lonely in its greatness,” evolved from a strange and lonely childhood beset with terrors and death, surrounded by brilliance, fabulous personages, and music. Miss Sitwell has summoned these into her pages with the passion of a scholar and the niceness of a poet. There is deep pathos in the book and grandeur as well; it is a true echo of that long-ago fanfare of such extraordinary import to the history of England and the world.