Michael Sinding Reviews David Elias’ Elizabeth of Bohemia
Elizabeth of Bohemia tells the story of the daughter of King James I of England and Queen Anne of Denmark, who married Frederick V of the Palatinate of the Rhine. Together, they mounted a doomed attempt to hold the throne of Bohemia, and then spent the rest of their lives struggling in exile.
Yet this novel is not greatly interested in conventional historical matters. Instead it recuperates Elizabeth as a kind of proto-secular-feminist. In a culture unfavourable to women, this Elizabeth is strong, independent-minded, modern—even postmodern. She celebrates nature and science, and scorns social convention, from gender (arranged marriage, wife and mother roles, sexism in plays, religious distortions of sexuality) to court antics to customs like bear-baiting.
Told in three parts, the book begins with Elizabeth and Frederick’s courtship and marriage in London in 1613. Elizabeth resigns herself to the wedding and gratuitous festivities and resolves to become queen. The second part covers the royal couple’s life in Heidelberg, with ongoing family difficulties, and Elizabeth’s countervailing passion for intellectual and political matters that inform her decision to secure the throne. Finally, the book covers the couple’s one-year “Winter” reign as King and Queen in Prague, which provokes retaliation by the Catholic Hapsburgs. The family flees to The Hague, where Elizabeth is increasingly isolated while arranging her children’s futures and observing the tides of history from a distance. She ultimately returns to England.
Ambivalently, Elizabeth suppresses emotion (following disturbing family traumas) for the sake of personal and political ambitions. Her voice is toughly humorous, but she’s distant or domineering with husband and children (she had thirteen). Consider her resentment of her pregnancies:
To couch the experience of carrying a child as noble was naught but an affectation, a myth fashioned to depict us as beatific incubators, gregarious gestators, when in fact it is a squalid and bothersome business. … If I were to add up all the months I spent waddling about in discomfort from one delivery to the next, it should stretch to the better part of a decade! What if instead I had devoted as much time to scientific study, searched for the cause of so many deaths in childbirth and the means to prevent them? I imagined a day when a woman might free herself of such an inconvenience, make use of a proxy, and thereafter have the baby dropped into her arms nine months hence. I admit I never wanted much to do with them until they reached the age where I could carry on a decent conversation with them.
Thus, the reader spends the novel inside Elizabeth’s head, getting only her subjective view of the world. It’s a privileged but sometimes stifling place: she is often self-absorbed, leaving the world around her flat. Consequently, characterization is typically polarized: we are invited to root for good guys and boo bad guys. Elizabeth’s parents, for example, are decadent celebrities: “We were equally appalled at their frivolous pageantry and undisguised self-aggrandizement…” Soldier/musician Captain Hume, however, is a diamond in the rough: “Though his swordsmanship was unequalled and his musicianship impeccable, his personal mannerism tended to put people off, as he exhibited a general disregard for decorum…”
Still Elizabeth’s affinity for heroically eccentric characters leads down surprising avenues. In one of the novel’s more ingenious inventions, she plots with Hume and his friend, the reclusive philosopher-scientist Sophia, to trick Frederick into pursuing the crown. Frederick’s preacher-advisor Scultetus, a theological astrologer, insists they watch the stars for a sign from God on the Bohemia question. The trio of tricky radicals conspires to deliver the sign, making Sophia prophet of her own coronation, accomplishing what a team of waffling theologian-politicians cannot.
Yet this Elizabeth is so remote and unflappable that the lives of those beneath her (most of the world) barely register. So, one doesn’t feel much for her. We hardly detect an echo of the monumental repercussions of the Bohemia decision. Relations with some others (e.g. brother Henry, confidante Lady Anne, Frederick, benefactor Lord Craven) are more nuanced, but rarely less chilly. The reader is treated to an ironic spin on Elizabeth’s self-absorption, as in the flight from Prague:
We endured many days of arduous travel, slept in countless uncomfortable beds, in cramped rooms, with hardly enough servants to see to the needs of the children let alone ours, and what was provided in the way of food hardly passed for such at times. Dreadful!
Towards the end, we get more of Elizabeth’s gloomy soliloquizing, revealing her (post)modern take on big questions. She rejects further marriages in favour of “those vows I took to see myself wedded to the quest of freedom and independence.” She broods that an afterlife is unlikely and conventional ideas about it silly. She imagines, several times, “cobbling together” self or life: “From the very first we all of us make up stories to tell ourselves. The little girl…with her dolls is in fact…manufacturing a meticulous fiction for herself, that she may dwell within.”
This book’s premise is refreshing, often enjoyable, but the execution reveals some pitfalls of revisionist-historical fiction. It seems Elias develops competing impulses for this story that don’t entirely gel. There are resonant historical events, adventurous material and some close character-analysis, but none is developed sufficiently to make this an historical, adventure or psychological novel. On the one hand, Elizabeth seems a brave kindred spirit for the reader, with the future in her bones. On the other hand, this smells strongly of “presentism”, the creative anachronism of reading the past for “relevance” to today—which easily gets heavy-handed, and should be counter-balanced with the challenge of experiencing past worlds in all their deep, dense otherness.
Michael Sinding studies and writes about literature, culture, cognition and language. He's especially interested in how genres blend, and how metaphor, narrative and genre interact to create worldviews. He's the author of Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind (U Toronto Press, 2014), and articles on Frye and a number of novelists and poets from the 17th to 20th centuries, from Cervantes to Thomas Pynchon. His article "From Words to Worldviews: Framing Narrative Genres" was awarded an Honourable Mention for the 2018 Hamilton Short Works Prize.