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Literature / Lady-in-Waiting

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Lady in Waiting is a 1956 Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, her first for an adult audience. Set during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James the First, it is Based on a True Story of the marriage of the English courtier, soldier, writer, and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) and his fond and patient wife Elizabeth (Bess) Throckmorton. Ralegh spends his life courting royal support for his expeditions to the New World, and Bess spends hers supporting her husband's all-consuming dream.


Lady in Waiting includes examples of:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Ralegh sees nothing contradictory between his fantastic arrogance and his abject pleading for forgiveness from Queen Elizabeth or King James. Royal favour is the only avenue to exploration, after all.
    If others wished to blush for him, they were welcome to do so; he never wasted time or energy in blushing for himself.
  • Battle Discretion Shot: As a function of Bess's POV, Ralegh's military exploits, like his battles with the Spanish armadas, take place "off-stage." His assault on Horta in the Azores is shown in brief cinematic intercuts with a simultaneous scene of Bess at a hawking party in St. James's Park.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Hero Dies. But he does it with panache.
  • Character Title: Literally, Bess is Elizabeth's Lady-in-Waiting before her marriage. Figuratively, she spends a lot of time after it playing second fiddle to Ralegh's ambitions.
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  • The Chessmaster: Robin Cecil, a Genius Cripple, later Secretary of State, and an old friend of the Raleghs when it's not politically inconvenient. The public, already inclined to see an Evil Cripple, views him as an Evil Chancellor.
    "I want my father’s power when the times comes for him to lay it down. I want to do things with it that he has never done. I want to guide the delicate threads of destiny, braiding them at my will. I want men a little afraid of me — tall men, with straight backs."
  • The Coup: A failed attempt against Elizabeth is the downfall of her favourite Robin Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
  • Creator Provincialism: Rosemary Sutcliff hailed from Devonshire, like Raleigh and several other explorers mentioned in the book: Ralegh's half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, their cousin Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Francis Drake, and John Hawkins.
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  • Driven to Suicide: Ralegh attempts suicide while awaiting trial. After the disastrous Guiana expedition, Ralegh's loyal Side Kick Captain Lawrence Kemys, whom Ralegh left in charge and blamed for the failure, kills himself after Ralegh's angry rejection of his justifications.
  • Foreshadowing: The omniscient narrator indulges in this fairly frequently, and does not scruple to spell out exactly how this or that character will die.
    Suddenly it was as though she were looking down the long vista of years, through the many times that she would lose him to his dream, to the last time of all, on a grey autumn morning when the clocks were striking eight, and a headsman's axe flashed down in Old Palace Yard.
  • Friendly Enemy: Ralegh and Essex, both favourites of Elizabeth, and Cecil, Secretary of State, are rivals for power despite little personal enmity. They work together or undermine each other whenever expedient.
  • A Hero to His Hometown: Ralegh is unpopular for his arrogance and ambition during his political ascendancy under Elizabeth, except in his native West Country. Public opinion shifts in his favour after his dubious conviction under James.
  • The High Queen: Despite her flaws (like possessiveness of Ralegh) and her increasing infirmity, Elizabeth is the idol of her court and the only monarch her younger subjects have ever known. Her reign is soon looked back on as a golden age.
  • King on His Deathbed: Elizabeth's rapid decline marks the end of an age and a possible Succession Crisis, but she manages to finally name her Sketchy Successor, James of Scotland.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: Ralegh spends most of the reign of James in the Tower of London. He's allowed to have his family and servants with him, receive guests, have dinner parties with the other noble prisoners, write books, conduct chemical experiments, and wave to his fans from the battlements, but it's small consolation to a man who wants to explore the far side of the world.
  • Marry for Love: Bess and Ralegh sneak around for about a year because the Queen hates romances among her entourage, then get married in secret on the eve of Ralegh's leaving for the fleet. They're immediately found out and thrown in the Tower for several months, but they remain Happily Married despite Bess's early discovery that Ralegh is capable of completely forgetting about her in pursuit of his dream.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The first chapter introduces Ralegh at twelve years old, when he first forms plans to explore the New World with his brother Humphrey Gilbert. The second introduces ten-year-old Bess (as well as Young Future Famous People Robin Cecil, Robin Devereux, and Mary Sidney) on the day that Bess first meets Ralegh.
  • Old Maid: When Ralegh (in his late thirties) falls in love with twenty-six-year-old Bess, she is, by the standards of their day, a spinster of many years' standing and definitely getting up there.
  • Prisoner's Dilemma: Lord Cobham falsely implicates Ralegh in the Main and Bye Plots, after being told (accurately) that Ralegh had given Cecil some circumstantial evidence against him.
  • Public Execution: The ultimate fate of both Essex and later Ralegh, thanks in part to their frenemy Cecil. Essex's attempted coup against Elizabeth seals his fate, while Ralegh is implicated on flimsy grounds in another against James. He's granted an indefinite stay of execution (again thanks to Cecil), but years later when it becomes politically convenient to appease Spain, whose colonial town Ralegh's expedition sacked, he goes to the block.
  • Quest to the West: Ralegh's Goal in Life since boyhood is to explore the New World and set up an English empire to rival Spain's. His specific destination shifts with the circumstances: first the Northwest Passage to China; then Manoa or El Dorado in Guiana; in the end simply an uncharted gold mine near the Orinoco.
    To him, as to the rest of his day and kind, the land between the headwaters of the Orinoco and the Amazon was a Promised Land. Many before him had set out to find it, and failing, had generally paid for the failure with their lives; but where many had failed, one more might yet succeed.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Raleghs' two sons, the beloved Watt, "a wild hawk," and The Un-Favourite Carew, a "rather dull little barley loaf!"
  • Renaissance Man: Besides an explorer, Ralegh is also a Warrior Poet, an alchemist, and the author of a history of the world. His intellectual circle, called the School of Night, includes Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser, Ben Jonson, John Dee, Dr. Thomas Hariot, and Christopher Marlowe.
  • Royally Screwed Up: King James the First doesn't come off well: he's a shifty, dribbling drunk, indiscreet about his interest in handsome young men, and under the thumb of the Spanish ambassador.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: "He had his own integrity, but for him, integrity lay in keeping faith with his dream" is perhaps a kind way of looking at Ralegh's priorities.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Though Ralegh is The Hero, most of the scenes are from Bess's point of view. Much of Ralegh's public career takes place off-stage and is summarised by the narrator, since Bess isn't around to witness it. Bess herself is a humble Housewife and her private pursuits aren't a focus of the story.
  • Time Skip: They are numerous, as the novel opens in the 1560s and ends in 1618.
  • Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Ralegh's estranged cousin Sir Lewis Stucley is sent to arrest him, professing reconciliation but meaning to entrap him. He betrays Ralegh's escape attempt and is rewarded with the nickname "Sir Judas Stucley."
  • Wet Blanket Wife: Conflict briefly arises when Bess tries to prevent Ralegh from going off to dangerous Guiana. He quietly reproaches her, and she accepts once and for all that his dream will always take precedence over her wishes.
    ‘I love you quite enough to lay down my life for you if the need arose; but you must not try to come between me and my own soul.’