Epic 16th-century adventure - themes and insights
Elizabeth is portrayed as a strong and spirited young woman in this novel. Do you think this is due to her own skills and strength of character, or is it due to the protection and guidance of others? Is she a born survivor or just plain lucky? In this context consider the following:
A) whether a secret society of like minds, based on the Cambridge scholars mentioned in the novel, really did exist behind the scenes - furthering her cause in the way that is suggested?
B) whether such a group would have been quite as pro-active as described in the story, with such determination to manipulate events and at such personal risk to themselves?
Other than that of teacher to pupil, what is the nature of the relationship between Dee and the young Elizabeth? What do they feel about each other emotionally, and how do these feelings develop and change as the story progresses?
Was Mary Tudor really as bad or as ‘bloody’ as she is made out to be in works of fiction such as this? Do you feel her character had some good or sympathetic aspects to it, especially during the early chapters of the novel? How did circumstances drive her towards what is portrayed finally as a state of madness and dreadful cruelty?
Consider whether the story partakes of the slightly anti-Catholic stance of so many works of Elizabeth-inspired fiction published today. What happens to the protagonist, John Dee, as the story unfolds. How does his religious and spiritual outlook alter by the time we have finished Chapter 19?
How does the John Dee in the novel compare to the biographical information we know about him? And why is his importance in the Tudor and Elizabeth establishment often so understated by modern historians?
The Unreliable Omniscient Narrator
Consider the situation of the narrator of the entire book – John Smyth, encountered in the Prologue, and the fact that the hero, John Dee, appears also to have the luxury of being able to provide us with a brief, cautionary sketch of him in the opening lines – a quote from Dee’s own diary. ‘April 5th. The Lady Russell robbed a little after midnight ... one, John Smyth is suspected … etc.'
In this context consider:
A) If Dee’s history, and that of the entire decade of the 1550’s is being told by someone whose character and reliability are deliberately drawn into question from the start, might we expect all manner of possibly exaggerated claims to be made concerning the characters and events described? If so, where do you think this occurs?
B) Who is really in charge? Is it ultimately Dee who is controlling what the reader is meant to believe, or Smyth? And will he come to alter his views (and ours) as the story progresses?
Although the story begins after the death of Henry VIII, when the Reformation in England was already well under way, some historians suggest that the worst of the damage inflicted on the Church was done during the reign of his son Edward. This might well be true. But was Edward really to blame? Consider:
Did the youthful King Edward and the equally vulnerable Jane Grey really believe in what they were advocating politically? For example, some consider them to have been passionate, almost fanatical protestants, driven by genuine reforming impulses. Others believe them to have been simply brow-beaten and frightened young people manipulated by strong and powerful Privy Councillors such as Seymour and Dudley. What do you think?
Consider the use of the present tense during almost the entire length of the book in terms of:
A) providing an immediate and persuasive experience for the reader – what has been described often as the ‘time travel’ or ‘being there’ sensation.
B) providing a free rein to a certain theatrical extravagance of style, as if attending a performance at a theatre.
C) providing a contrasting experience for those moments in which the characters speak in past tense, when they reminisce or relate episodes from their life-experiences.
Dreams and Fantasy
To what extent does the story broaden to encompass dream-like or telepathic experiences in which Dee and Elizabeth participate? Are you comfortable with the magical world in which Dee operates? Towards the final chapters, how much of the text is describing reality and how much fantasy or even hallucinatory experiences?
Given the fact that Cecil served in the governments of both protestant Edward and Catholic Mary, was he as some say merely a self-serving bureaucrat looking after his own interests or did he have a genuine admiration for Elizabeth and a true sense of loyalty to the renaissance humanist ideals that he professed to champion?
On a lighter note, if Virgin and the Crab were to be made into a movie, who would you choose to play the main characters?