Art History in “The Marriage Game: A Novel of Elizabeth I” by Alison Weir

A book I checked out from Overdrive, I read this historical fiction novel along with Alison Weir’s nonfiction biography on Elizabeth R. To sum up this story, Weir dramatizes scenes from the queen’s life and her ability to escape matrimony.  As I read this, I wondered if there needs to be a book on the royal ritual of portrait exchange in marriage negotiations.  Also, I find this ritual both so far removed from the glut of photography that permeates modern society to it acting as a precursor to the medium.  Furthermore, Weir captures people’s fears of painters taking license in their creations, a fear not too dissimilar from the stress caused by the use of Photoshop now.  Of course, when it comes to portraits, one person’s idealism is another person’s deception, and the characters in this novel live in this state of mind.

In this book, other types of portraits, such as miniatures, act as the lifeblood of courtship and are just as useful as any written correspondence.  They also even work as fashion decorations.  To elaborate on miniatures, portrait painters such as Nicholas Hilliard make an appearance.  If you click on the link, it shows a collection of tiny, very intimate portraits of high ranking Elizabethan people.  For portraits of more grand nature, Weir mentions George Gower‘s painting of the queen commemorating nature’s defeat of the Spanish Armada.  However, portraits can also condemn people.  For instance, Weir recounts the time Anthony Babington and his group attempted a rebellion against the queen and how they committed the Elizabethan equivalent of recording their attempted crime on social media.  In other words, the rebels commissioned a painting of themselves together before the attempted overthrow of Elizabeth R.

Furthermore, due to his many portraits of royalty, Hans Holbein acts as an invisible god in the book.  He’s not there in person, but his art still influences the people who encounter his work.


For example, in multiple scenes from the Game, Weir shows Queen Elizabeth using the Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII as an intimidation tactic during her meetings with other people. The author also casts Elizabeth as valuing her family, from her owning Holbein’s group portrait of her ancestors and a painting of her much maligned mother.  Regarding that group portrait, I’ve tried to find that painting, but so far, nothing.

Reading this book’s depiction of religious themed art during Elizabeth’s time, I felt this faint sense of Iconoclasm, especially with England promoting Protestant modesty over their beliefs that Catholics practiced a sort of decadent worship of material goods.  However, while England discouraged the Catholic worship of art, Weir writes of Elizabeth practically depicting herself as a divine being in paintings. On architecture,  the queen’s court has multiple mentions of the rich life that occurred in such buildings.  There, she depicts royal and noble life living exquisitely in various buildings, with the exception of Peter ad Vincula. Since this takes place in England, the legendary St. Paul’s Cathedral appears. Weir also mentions different types of tapestries, even describing which eras they came from.  Including Raphael’s tapestries, which she writes of their display during Elizabeth’s coronation. Interestingly, in my searches for information about the tapestries, I found no mention of them at Elizabeth’s crowning.  The characters and text do mention art from the East, which consists of mostly textiles and architectural decorations. Finally, the constant use of the word gallery made me contemplate how the word went from a description of a room to a type of business.

While an enjoyable trifle of a novel, I felt that Weir should have kept the telling down to a minimum and do more showing. While I enjoyed going in the character’s heads and the political maneuverings that occurred during the Elizabethan era, I found myself frustrated every time Weir told us about an event instead of having the characters reenact it for the reader.


One comment

  1. […] A detailed biography on the English queen, author Alison Weir looks into Elizabeth R’s life and investigates the true and false claims that arose during and after the famed woman’s reign.  Having simultaneously read this book and The Marriage Game, Weir’s historical fiction novel of the Queen at the same time, I regard this review as a companion piece to my review of Game. […]

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