Affairs of State: For Her Latest Book, Historical Biographer Sarah Gristwood Has Turned to the Story of Elizabeth I and Leicester. Here She Discusses Some of the Risks and Pleasures of Writing about Such a Well-Known Relationship, a Process That She Found Unexpectedly Fascinating

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THERE IS A SHAMING SENSE of proprietorship that sneaks over the writer of a historical biography--or of most historical biographies, anyway--a sense, however unrealistic, that no one has ever approached the subject before. It doesn't work that way, if you're writing about Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, one of the best-known relationships in English history. You feel more like the conservator of a national treasure: stripping off some bad restoration work; perhaps trying out some new techniques of exploration and display; but primarily just keeping the fabric intact until the next generation of caretakers happens by. What is more, you are soon made to realise--if you hadn't before--that no one (not even the least historically minded) comes to this particular story fresh. It is one with which all of us have some sort of a history.

Although it is almost half a century since a non-fiction book devoted specifically to Elizabeth Tudor and Robert Dudley appeared, there has, of course, been no end of other versions of their tale. The last eighteen mouths alone have seen two major new television series on Elizabeth's life, and a documentary reviving the old canard that the pair had a son, a pretender who presented himself at the Spanish court under the name of Arthur Dudley. There was Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel The Virgin's Lover about the relationship itself, and a West End revival of Schiller's Mary Stuart with Leicester caught between a queen of hearts and a queen of heads. Before that there was the feature film Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett as the queen and Joseph Fiennes as Dudley, a sequel to which is on the way. And long before any of those, a whole generation who may never have read any of the new biographies of Elizabeth, or the new work on Leicester, grew up on Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R, or on the romantic novels by Margaret Irwin or Jean Plaidy. But this appetite for their story seems to be one that grows by what it feeds on--luckily for me.

There might seem to be a risk in offering readers a factual version of the Elizabeth and Leicester story--a risk that, with all the necessary cavils, all the quibbles about the fluidity of the source material (rumours of doubtful attribution, ambassadors' letters we've read only in translation), the factual version will be less palatable than quick colourful, easily digested fantasy. But, in fact, the more attractive and convincing the recent fictions have been, the more they spark the curiosity for the real story. We want to weigh the evidence for ourselves--like successive generations of historians, like the couple's own contemporaries.

To be sure, the public interest has problems as well as possibilities for anyone embarking on their story. The agenda has already been set for you. The king of France in Elizabeth's own lifetime joked that one of the three great questions of Europe was 'whether Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no', and that fascination has not gone away. Indeed, I found, somewhat to my consternation, that this was the one question every single person asked, on hearing that I was planning to write Elizabeth and Leicester.

The massive interest is not just simple prurience--after all, anyone who wants to read about the sex lives of royalty can do so without trawling through four hundred years of history. In part, perhaps, there is a genuine interest in just how Elizabeth's private life meshed with her public career: she is, after all, a rare early female role model. But far more importantly, it's because Elizabeth's iconic maiden status is one of the things we all think we know. The Virgin Queen has always been at once as magical a myth as Arthur's Camelot and--we hope--as solid and splendid a fact as Nelson's Trafalgar victory. But now we need to know if we've been sold a pup. In an age of spin and of its converse, the debunking of many of the old popular stories, we want to know if this legend, too, will crumble. …