Have you ever wondered what it would be like to meet Queen Elizabeth I in person?
Imagine you’ve fallen back 450 years through time. You’re presented to the famous figure in the lavish gold gown and red wig. You bow low, then look up into those famous dark eyes. What would you see? An imperious, aloof, demanding woman? Or perhaps you would catch her in a softer mood; curious, intelligent and challenging? Either way, it would be fascinating to see if the real woman is ever revealed from behind the queenly mask.
This was the challenge I faced when I decided to have Lady Mary, the 21st century time-travelling heroine of The Witchfinder’s Well, meet the Queen. When this occurs in the sequel, The Alchemist’s Arms, Lady Mary has a number of conversations with Elizabeth, some of which occur in highly-charged dramatic situations. As I sat down to write these scenes, I had to decide what kind of person Elizabeth should be. We all know the dramatic portrayals of her in film – by actresses such as Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Margot Robbie and Glenda Jackson. Should she be like the impassive white-faced Margot Robbie? Or the thoughtful Helen Mirren? A political operator like Cate Blanchett? Or maybe she’s a flawed lover, as in Susan Kay’s epic biopic novel Legacy?
But then I realised that, just as every portrayal of Elizabeth is by definition a work of fiction, I was as free as any author to make her the character I wanted her to be. Yes, she should be every inch a queen and by 1575, well settled into her role; and yes, she should be confident, authoritative and decisive – but within those boundaries I could shape her into the three dimensional character I wanted her to be.
So my Elizabeth is a woman first and a queen second. She is outgoing, witty and engaging, with a wry sense of humour. I wanted to bring out the warmth of a woman who has faced real hardship – the death of her own mother and a succession of stepmothers; being locked in the Tower with her own execution likely; sycophantic courtiers vying for her favour as queen, or even for her hand in marriage – and come through even stronger. I felt sure that all of these would have made her outer shell very hard and almost impenetrable, but underneath the heart of a real woman would still beat. This outer shell is so often what we are presented in films and novels, but my Elizabeth is frequently in dialogue with Lady Mary alone, so maybe her true warmth could shine through.
In the end, I have created her as I would like to think she was in private – a passionate, caring woman, able to be herself without all the sycophants and politicos trying to manoeuvre their way under her defences. In all, I rather like her; and if it was me that raised my eyes to hers, I like to think we would have got along famously.