Review: Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court

Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court
Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by Anna Whitelock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An exhaustive and brilliant examination of the political and personal climate surrounding the reign of Elizabeth I, filtering her decisions and the behaviours of those around her through the persons of those ladies most close to her. Whitelock draws these ladies-in-waiting right into the centre of the political intrigues that plagued Elizabeth’s court, and shows the parts they had to play– both positive and negative– in maintaining the careful balancing act Elizabeth strode between political alliances, religious claims, and the infighting factions as they all jockeyed for control over her person, her power, and the British realm.

Imbued with stunning detail and with a deft and genuine feeling for the age, Whitelock’s greatest achievement is in bringing the personalities of her protagonists to life, whether they be the acknowledge greats such as the Cecils and Walsingham, or such minor walk-ons as the procession of Jesuit priests who plotted her assassination. But the book revolves around Elizabeth in the way the court itself did, and it’s ultimately the portrayal of this complex, unknowable woman by which the narrative will stand or fall. And Whitelock does an amazing job of bringing her to life, providing a fulcrum around which to build the narrative as well as giving the reader a close insight into the changes in the twinning of the Queen’s body with the political fortunes of her realm, and showing the continued price that twinning played, not only on her but on those most intimately associated with her rule, and with her personal routines.

A genuinely stunning work of historical detection and philosophy.

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Sad news today, with the passing of Mel Smith, founding member of Not the Nine O’Clock News and co-star of Alas, Smith and Jones, two of the most consistently brilliant comedy programs of the late 70s and 1980s. Never exactly a slave to fitness or health, by all accounts, 60 years of age is still too early to see a performer of such superb timing and comic precision depart.

Not the Nine O’Clock News and, especially Alas, Smith and Jones played a huge part in my own comedic and writing education. They’re incredible examples of writing, especially in regards to wordplay and dialogue. They were literate, articulate, and scurrilous, and I adored them.

By way of memorial, here’s one of my favourite Smith & Jones sketches, a gleeful decimation of the Shakespearean turn of phrase:

And here’s another, illuminating one of the lessons I’ve learned most deeply: that you can strip away everything else, and still be captivating, funny, and honest, as long as you have strength in your dialogue. No matter what else the show was filled with, these ‘conversation’ pieces were always the highlight, and this one is just about their best:

It’s always a sad day when genius leaves us, not least because it means the opportunity for fresh work is denied us. And this passing leaves me sad indeed.