Carolly Erickson Interview
September 29, 2010
the author of Rival to the Queen
It was great to welcome Carolly Erickson to the blog on September 29, 2010. Her novel Rival to the Queen, about Lettice Knollys, the second wife of Queen Elizabeth I's favorite Robert Dudley, appeared on bookstore shelves that day.
Lettice Knollys was Mary Boleyn's granddaughter, and possibly Henry VIII's. How do you think this affected the way Queen Elizabeth felt about her?
According to the surviving contemporary records, Elizabeth was close-mouthed about her Boleyn ancestry. No doubt she was suspicious of Lettice and, deep down, nervous about her possible aspirations. It is conceivable that Elizabeth knew Lettice was King Henry's grandchild and that this created a strong tension between them. So there were multiple reasons for feelings of rivalry. The Tudor court seethed with such undercurrents. One pleasure of writing historical entertainments is that I can invent freely about what my characters may have known or believed, which led them to act as they did.
What led you to open with an execution scene instead of one relating more directly to Lettice's rivalry with Queen Elizabeth?
The scene in which the child Lettie is forced to watch the horrific burning of her tutor is crucial to our understanding of her character. It is one of the formative experiences of her childhood, and leaves a deep impression. The message is: beware the cruel power of the monarch! Those who displease the monarch risk great pain and suffering.
Another clear message--and this is a message to the reader as well--is the stark and bitter clash between Catholic and Protestant. Lettie's tutor was condemned to his fiery death because the Catholic Queen Mary was determined to rid England of Protestants. To many of Lettie's contemporaries, belief was literally a life and death matter; theology was a vital issue and not an obscure arena for scholars and clergy to debate.
How did your choice to have Lettice narrate her own story affect other aspects of the novel?
A first-person narrative always imposes limitations on the storyteller, for the scope of the tale is limited by what the narrator witnesses, senses, and hears from others, as well as their particular worldview. In Lettie's case, having her tell her own story allowed me to see and describe Elizabeth through the eyes of a prescient female contemporary, and also to explore the nature of the Elizabeth/Dudley intimacy which has always seemed enigmatic.
One of the enduring mysteries of Elizabeth's reign was the death of Dudley's wife Amy. Court gossip accused her husband--possibly in collusion with the queen--of arranging her murder. The coroner's jury brought in a verdict of death by misadventure--i.e., accidental death. But Lettie, as first-person narrator, discovers another intriguing explanation.
Having Lettie tell the story allowed me to build an image of Dudley as a sympathetic, very human character, caught in the web of court intrigue and both exalted and victimized by Elizabeth's treatment of him. My fictional Lettie is clearsighted enough to bear witness to the complex motives of those around her.
Review of Rival to the Queen by Carolly Erickson
See listing for Rival to the Queen at Powell's Books
See listing for Rival to the Queen at Amazon.com
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