I was a ghastly little show off when I was young (I know, it is possible I haven’t grown out of it). I used to watch a kid’s program in the late 60s called Keith Smith’s Pied Piper. Older readers may vaguely remember it, but it featured children saying and doing what used to be referred to back then as ‘the darndest things’. I yearned to be on it.
One day in 1968, I was reading the kid’s section in the Sun Herald and I saw an ad for a casting call for the program that very afternoon. I nagged my parents so insistently that my poor father finally agreed to take my sister Ann and I along for the audition. There were masses of other kids at Channel Ten in Sydney that afternoon, so the producers divided us into manageable groups of about 30. They then proceeded to ask the whole group a bunch of questions. I realised that the way to get the gig was to stand out. I got my opportunity when the producer asked the following question.
“Every girl wants to get married and have children, doesn’t she?” It was 1968.
All the other girls yelled “Yeeeesssss!” at the top of their voices, but I yelled “Nooooooo!”
I got the gig and featured in an episode of The Pied Piper Show, where I explained (as I had in the audition) that I didn’t want to get married or have children because it was a lot of responsibility and I wanted to travel, have fun and run my own life. I also ate an oyster, but that’s all I really remember about my half hour of fame as an eleven year old.
I was a bit of a fraud, of course. I could see the attractions of a single life, for sure, but I still assumed marriage and kids were probably in my future somewhere. As, indeed, they were.
I think I got the idea that marriage and children were not the only future for women and girls because, even at the tender age of 11, my hero was already the great Tudor Queen Elizabeth 1. Her stubborn refusal to share her power or her life with a man – and in 1559 that was even more heretical than it was in 1968 – gave me a model for how being different could also make you successful.
My obsession with Elizabeth has never waned. When I was young, there were very few female heroes. You could choose between self-sacrificing, saintly women like Joan of Arc or Nurse Edith Cavell or heinous, manipulative bitches. Both types generally came to a sticky end. Elizabeth I was different. Here was a woman who had wielded power on her own and was universally considered to have wielded it well. She – almost alone among female historical figures – had earned what I still regard as the most valuable thing of all: respect.
For centuries, even millennia, women have been trained to seek love above everything else. Elizabeth Tudor (although she certainly did love at least one man) did not put love first. It makes sense that she wouldn’t. After all, her father (Henry VIII) cut her mother’s (Anne Boleyn’s) head off before Elizabeth was 3 years old. That might put you off the whole idea for life, I imagine. She also watched all her female contemporaries – particularly her sister Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) and cousin Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) – suffer and sometimes die as a result of their desperate quest for love. Many, many women died horribly in childbirth in that era, including two of Elizabeth’s stepmothers Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr.
Despite the terrible risks of marriage and childbirth, most women had little or no choice. They were legally the property of their father until they married and then the property of their husband. As heir to the throne and then monarch, Elizabeth had a choice and she chose not to be owned by a man.
Elizabeth applied her intelligence to her life. This is still something even the smartest women rarely do. In fact it is still seen as rather hard-hearted and unfeminine. Women are still supposed to let their hearts rule their head. Well, that’s what Mary Queen of Scots did and she lost hers.
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Elizabeth I was probably a genius (another epithet that is rarely – if ever - applied to women). She needed to be to withstand the intense pressure to marry and bear sons. She needed to be to rule England so wisely and well that it went from a provincial backwater to prosperous powerhouse within the 45 years she reigned.
I have noticed a tendency recently for women writers to reclaim and re-interpret female figures in history. Leslie Cannold has done so with Jesus’s sister in The Book of Rachel. Julia Baird is doing so in her forthcoming book about Queen Victoria. I have joined in by writing two young adult books about my hero.
In Just a Girl Elizabeth looks back over her youth and childhood as she lies, sleepless in the Tower of London, on the eve of her coronation. I have tried to make her a real, living, breathing, uncertain human being, rather than the stiff icon we are often presented with.
In the sequel Just a Queen Elizabeth is traumatised by the fact that Mary Queen of Scots has been executed under her warrant (although without her knowledge). She thinks back over the past 25 years of rule and wonders how it was she has ended up doing the very thing she always swore she would never do – kill an anointed Queen.
I have the final book in the trilogy Just Flesh and Blood in the pipeline. It will take Elizabeth to the end of her long reign.
It is my hope that women of all ages who read these books will see what I saw when I first discovered Elizabeth Tudor. She is a role model for female wisdom, courage and discipline; a woman to be reckoned with. Because, of course, there can be no real love without respect.
Who's your idol?
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