Saturday, March 3, 2012

"This Rough Magic"

My third novel, The Tapestry, was published this year. One of the questions I'm always asked is ... why Tudor England? People want to know why a newspaper reporter turned magazine editor, born in Chicago and raised in Michigan, a wife and a mother of two children, would be drawn to another time and another country.

I can tell you that it began when I watched "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" on television with my parents when I was perhaps 11 years old. But why did I stay interested? And I'm not just interested--transfixed, really, with the 16th century for my entire life. There is no simple answer. Yes it's the drama of the royals, the fearsome Henry VIII, his jostling wives, his devious courtiers, and his courageous daughters. It's the vividness of the Holbein portraits and the beauty of the writers and poets, from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More to Sir Philip Sidney.

But I do believe it's a line from the greatest 16th century-born writer of them all, William Shakespeare, who captured what I love the most about the time of the Tudors: "This rough magic," says Prospero in "The Tempest."

And it's this 1560 painting, of Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, that illustrates the rough magic. Dudley the man Elizabeth I loved, makes no appearance in my novels (yet!). "The Crown" takes place in the late 1530s, Dudley firmly belongs to the reign of Elizabeth. But when I look at this portrait, I think about how he embodies so well the fascinating contrasts of the 16th century. 

A Venetian ambassador said of Dudley: "A man of tall personage, a manly countenance, somewhat brown of visage, strongly featured, and thereto comely proportioned in all lineaments of body."  Dudley was well educated and cultured--and a hell of a dancer. But he was also mistrusted, loathed and even feared. When his first wife, Amy Robsart, ended up dead at the bottom of a very shallow staircase, he was widely suspected of having killed her to "make room" for the queen. In this portrait, completed the same year that his wife mysteriously died, you can soak in his confident, almost swaggering pose. Note his well trimmed mustache and his lavish doublet. He's a man of potent, if not deadly, charisma. He financed private companies of actors and musicians; he collected art; he invested in exploration and London businesses and gave to the poor. Yet he was also considered greedy, violent, utterly ruthless, and quite contemptible by rival courtiers. Robert Dudley was, I think, all these things. He was the embodiment of the 16th century man.

Prospero's complete line is: "This rough magic I here abjure." But I could not say goodbye to the 16th century even if I never wrote another novel set in this time. The spell of this rough magic lasts for life.

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