The Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor
by Kathryn Lasky
1999 • 240 pages • Scholastic Press
When I’m cherry-picking nostalgia bombs with other bookish people my age, Scholastic Press’ Dear America inevitably comes up when you’re talking book series of the late nineties and early aughts. (I literally just had this conversation last week, while visiting a college friend in Texas.) First published between 1996 and 2004, the series featured diaries written from the perspectives of young women at critical moments in American history. It was so popular that it’s not only been recently relaunched (as of 2010, with both new titles in the series and just reissues of the original), but spun off three other series. My Name is America was Dear America’s staff counterpart, while My America was aimed at younger children. But The Royal Diaries, which took the formula and reapplied it to young royal women throughout human history, was, in my young eyes, clearly superior.
I read one or two of them when I was still in the target audience, many moons ago, but largely, I was more impressed by how diverse The Royal Diaries was. Usually, when royal women are talked about in American public schools, it’s Elizabeth I, Queen Isabella, and Marie Antoinette. (And Cleopatra, of course, but she’s largely covered in English class under Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.) But The Royal Diaries included much more than that basic sampling, from Princess Kaiulani to Chikako, Princess Kazu to Anacaona. (Holy crow, Edwidge Danticat wrote the Anacaona book? That’s awesome!) Long before I began cross-stitching lady business’s motto “All the ladies, all the time” onto my metaphorical throw pillows, having a such a diverse crowd of royal women for preteen girls to read about, get interested in, and look up to, appealed to me on a pretty deep level.
Though not deep enough to read obsessively—by the time I discovered them, I was already making deals with my mother about what I had to read to get to what I wanted to read. (I had to read Silas Marner to get to Good Omens. Accordingly, I adore the latter and remember nothing of the former.) I’ve been meaning to return as an adult and read all the books in order. This is more for myself than for bookselling in general—firstly, I’m no longer a bookseller (for now, she said ominously) and secondly, because The Royal Diaries only very recently relaunched, reissuing the books with snazzy new covers.
Elizabeth I: The Red Rose of the House of Tudor kicked off the series in 1999 with one of the big guns. (I made that above list of common lady royals taught in American classrooms without realizing that they constitute the first four books in the series. And then Anastasia, who should definitely be on that list in the first place.) While I imagine it had largely little to do with the launch of The Royal Diaries, I find it pretty awesome that Elizabeth I was having a pretty good last few years of the millennium, with the release of Elizabeth. But this book has a little more in common with Elizabeth: The Golden Age than it does with the first film.
I do need to revisit Elizabeth: The Golden Age just because, but the way the film is framed—with an anachronistically young Isabella Clara Eugenia much more interested in a doll of Queen Elizabeth than her father’s promises to put her on the throne present at both beginning and end of the film—is certainly trying to say something about relationships between women, especially royal women. In the case of Elizabeth I: The Red Rose of the House of Tudor, Kathryn Lasky highlights the relationship between the young Elizabeth and Catherine Parr, the last of King Henry VIII’s wives.
There are other women present in Elizabeth’s lives—an anachronistically cruel Princess Mary and her beloved maid Kat, for instance—but I was particularly struck by Elizabeth’s devotion to Catherine, especially towards the end of the book, when Elizabeth fears that her father may have Catherine arrested and executed so he can pursue another woman. And this after an entire novel all about how much Elizabeth craves her father’s attention, even resenting Mary for getting any part of it. (Lasky’s Elizabeth is usually pretty level-headed, often talking to her diary about the lengths she goes to hide it, but she occasionally lets slip her more childish side.) Catherine takes a particular care and interest in Elizabeth’s education, constantly acts as the go-between for Elizabeth when she wants to communicate with her fickle father, and honestly seems to care for her. While Elizabeth has conflicted feelings over her mother, going so far as to extract a detailed description of her mother’s execution from a witness but also fearing that she was a witch as people claim, she explicitly calls Catherine her queen and her mother.
It’s these little individual flourishes that I’m reading The Royal Diaries for. There’s plenty of the usual fare for historical children’s novels, from Elizabeth complaining over having to a bath when she just took one last month to Elizabeth explaining the concept of humors to an appendix featuring what really happened, and the diary format means that there are often less interesting entries if you’re reading for the story and not historical research. But something like Elizabeth and Catherine, her stepmother, having such a positive relationship is something I rarely see in adult novels, let alone works aimed at children. Elizabeth’s early commitment to never getting married is also a welcome surprise; she’s even delighted for her maid when she gets married, while reaffirming her (completely reasonable, given her family history) disinterest in matrimony.
I imagine, as I move forward with this haphazard project of reading all of the Royal Diaries, that the writing will probably be more or less of similar quality, given the pretty shoehorned format, so I’ll largely be focusing on their representation and what they say to young girls. So far, though, so good.
I rented this book from the public library.