Tuesday, August 20, 2019

David Elias' Elizabeth of Bohemia

Elizabeth of Bohemia was the eldest daughter of James I of England; her brother was Charles I, executed by Cromwell. David Elias' Elizabeth of Bohemia is a historical novel that encompasses her entire life.

It's a fascinating period, with lots of great walk-on parts. Shakespeare makes an appearance; so does René Descartes. She could have been married to Gustavus Adolphus. Elizabeth has a crush on the dashing (and older) Sir Walter Raleigh, and sneaks into the Tower of London to visit him. The events of her life are the opening chapters of English Civil War and the Thirty Years' War.

Elizabeth tells her own story: the novel begins in 1612, when she's sixteen, and her father is arranging her marriage to Frederick V, the Elector of Palatine, to shore up alliances among Protestant countries. Elizabeth is hostile to the idea of arranged marriages, especially her own arranged marriage. (She does have that crush on Sir Walter Raleigh.) But she has no power, and the marriage is hastened on, despite the death of her beloved older brother Henry.

In Heidelberg, the capitol of Frederick's realm, she catches the ambition bug, and though she no more than tolerates her husband, she decides to propel him into becoming the king of Bohemia, and make herself queen. Her plot succeeds and they're crowned in Prague. But the Hapsburg and Catholic Ferdinand II can't tolerate this usurpation, and their reign is brief: hence she's the Winter Queen.

Elias' novel has a tripartite structure: the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth in England takes up about a third of the novel; then there are her young married years in Heidelberg, her constant child-bearing; lastly the years after her brief queen-ship, in Heidelberg and finally, a widow, back in England. The realization of her ambitions are glossed over in a page or two--well, they didn't last very long in reality in any case. Frederick was off to fight, before surrendering the throne; there are no war scenes in the novel; we very much see the story as Elizabeth could.

It's an engaging voice, though I have to admit I'm not particularly convinced that it could be the voice of a woman of the 1600s. But then maybe that doesn't matter as long as the story carries you along...

One from my #20booksofsummer list.

And one for the Canadian Book Challenge:

The book just came out last month. ARC provided by ECW Press


  1. She sounds like a fascinating person. (Or at least someone who lived in interesting times.)

  2. Historical fiction is tricky in having an accessible but believable narrator for the time period. I remember reading a couple of books from Philippa Gregory and thinking her protagonists were a little too modern in their thought at times.

    As I get older, however, I do realize how one tends to "freeze" the past. For example, the 1950s was a conservative era in the U.S. but there are readers who seem to think that no one had premarital sex, for example. I wasn't alive in the 1950s but I know people who were and they've told me stories!!!

    1. It's true: we get set ideas about what a period was like & we're not necessarily open to a new read about that era. The 50s is before me, too, but it may not have been as monolithic as all that. I remember the day I discovered my mother had an original Elvis Presley 45. Shocking!

      But I also wonder how much the psychology of the character needs to fit the era. Movies come to mind as better examples, say something like Shakespeare in Love, which didn't feel like a real Shakespeare, but since it had such an engaging story, it didn't matter for me. (Though I knew people who disliked it.) As long as it engages--through whatever combination of mechanisms--I figure it's OK. But a character that feels too modern can be a danger sign, and some people may not like it.

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comment! Which just enabled me to blather on some more!