History and Love – how can we ever unravel the truth?
The historical records provide evidence of events about which we are certain, but what of the feelings of those who lived long ago – how can we know how they experienced love? Consider attitudes in the Elizabethen era, when women were typically under the complete control of men, could not own property or trade (except in widowhood), and could not even protest if their husbands beat them because that was legal and expected in cases of disobedience. Women were inferior to men so how could they be loved as equals? ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Shakespeare wrote of his lover, ‘Thou art more lovely and more temperate’. In language that has resonated through time with the power of his feeling we all know how the sonnet ends:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The words are beautiful, but it is Shakespeare’s mastery with his pen that gives his lover immortality. In this, he possesses her absolutely.
Elizabeth I – Armada Portrait
For historical novelists the recreation of emotion poses a dilemma. We want to accurately reflect the attitudes and mind-sets of the past, to make our characters convincing in terms of being true to their age, but we also want to show them experiencing emotion in a way that we can identify with in the here and now. They have to be empathetic to modern readers. How accurately can we conjure up the passion in relationships that flowered long ago? Is it possible to do this simply by transposing how we might feel now in similar circumstances within the framework of what actually happened according to historical sources? The difficulty is that while there are many accounts that deal with incident in time and place, there are few that document emotion, particularly genuine expressions of love. There is a wealth of Elizabethan love poetry, not least because declarations of love in rhyming couplets were expected of every gentleman of the time, but relatively little was written by women, and the stylised poetry that formed a conventional facet of courtship may well have had more to do with the idea of love than the reality.
Did Elizabeth I really love François, Duc de Anjou, when she wrote:
…I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.
My care is like my shadow in the sun —
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands, and lies by me, doth what I have done;
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed…
Francois, Duke of Alencon, later Anjou
The lyricism is captivating, and there will be a part of any sensitive modern reader wanting to believe that Elizabeth was heartbroken when the young Frenchman, who had steadfastly courted her for three years, left England for the last time. But Elizabeth was playing a clever game of political expediency by encouraging the courtship of her ‘frog’ as she affectionately called him. For as long as the heir to the French throne was courting her, France would not ally with Spain to England’s disadvantage.
As Elizabeth approached her fifties she may well have dallied with the idea of sharing a bed with a man, then in his mid-twenties, who had declared her to be the object of his infatuation. But it was more fantasy than substance. Most historians consider the poem to be a sophisticated conceit, on a par with the £30,000 paid to the departing duke to sweeten his leave-taking along with bills for £20,000 more. Pricking the fiction of her love came at a price.
Yet within the measured lines of Elizabeth’s poem is there real feeling showing through; a deep sadness for the loss of a kind admirer; a recognition that she would never find fulfilment as a mother; a cry from a soul unable ever to commit to passion? ‘I freeze, and yet I burn.’
Perhaps the Elizabethans experienced love far more intensely than most of us do now, in the way that love is often heightened in wartime by stark confrontation with the fragility of life. For the Elizabethans, life was often harsh, cut short by unexplained illness, afflicted by conflict and vagaries of fortune. Perhaps they became inured to tragedy, or perhaps they loved with a depth of feeling we can only guess at in looking back.
Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, John Donne wrote The Good-Morrow in which his love transcends reality and makes the world seem like a dream.
…And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown;
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?…
The subject may well be Anne More who John Donne married in secret, leading to his ruin, imprisonment and penury at an early age before he began a new career in the church. Anne died in childbirth with their twelfth or thirteenth child leaving Donne ‘by grief made wordless’. In The Good-Morrow he wishes only to be close to his love and the room around them becomes a universe beyond which all the drama of intrepid voyages to far-flung lands is insignificant. There’s little evidence here of the commonly held view at the time that men were the God-placed superiors of women who were born weak, unstable, incapable of higher levels of thought, and were typically: ‘lascivious, crafty, whoorish, theevish and knavish.’
When men and women travelled together to the New World intent on founding the first English colony in America could they have loved as deeply as Donne’s poetry suggests? We cannot know for certain; the records deal only with their names and the events of the voyage. But perhaps they did. When Elizabeth locked herself in her room for days following the death of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was she distraught at the loss of the only man she had ever truly loved or merely seeking some privacy? Perhaps the words on the letter she kept in her bedside treasure box for the rest of her life tells us all we need to know: ‘His last letter’.
Quotes are from: Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII; On Monsieur’s Departure (1581), reputed to be by Elizabeth I; The Good-Morrow by John Donne (c1592-5); and from Joseph Swetman in The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1617)
This article is from a piece which first appeared on the Romantic Novelists’ Association blog