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favourite-the-paperbackMathew Lyon‘s The Favouritetraces the rise of Walter Ralegh from Devon small gentry to royal favour and power – and does it by paying attention to the psychological intricacies of Ralegh’s relationship with the Queen.

Lyons reads between the lines of extant documents and explores the motives of words and actions. What emerges is the rather unusual portrait of”the man who threw his cloak at Elizabeth’s feet.”

The Favourite begins there too, with the famous anecdote that may or may not be a later fiction – but, the author says, even if it is, it fits Ralegh to perfection, in its mix of bold impulse and shameless display. If he didn’t do it, whoever made it up caught well the man’s projected image…

There is much more, of course. Lyons portrays a ruthless, compulsively acquisitive, magnetic individual endowed with a wide range of talents, and crippled by self-doubt and insecurity. A man who dreams of empires across the Ocean, and never ceases to pine for his corner of Devon. Who climbs the glittering, deadly spheres of Court high politics, but disdains to play by the accepted rules of faction and network.

Indeed, Ralegh’s life seems to have revolved around his uniqueness. It may not have strictly brought him to Elizabeth’s attention – but it kept him firmly there for decades. It made him a force to be reckoned with, and at the same time made him widely disliked…

Elizabeth herself must have liked to keep it so. While Ralegh most certainly had the Queen’s ear, her favour never translated into an official position, and the extent of his power, while virtually boundless, was both unpredictable and volatile. Small wonder that the other players at the game mostly loathed him as a threat and a hindrance – and small wonder that, vulnerable in his borrowed power, he should feel insecure.

Besides, insecurity made him brash. There is, to Ralegh, a constant feel of boundaries being tested – which is hardly surprising, give Elizabeth’s attitude to him. Her actions and recorded words show a combination of genuine affection and shrewd calculation. Lyons convincingly speculates that he both embodied her frantic lifelong need for personal freedom, and was a tool to exercise a measure of that freedom. His uniqueness she saw, liked and exploited to her own ends, in a careful game of intimacy, gifts, displays of favour and the occasional sharp set-down. Everything has more than one face between Elizabeth and her “Water”… it is a complicated dance between two complicated characters – under the interested and hostile eyes of the Court and the whole of Europe.

It is easy to imagine Ralegh seeking uncomplicated marital bliss with Bess Throckmorton a few years later – no matter the price… But the book stops well before that, in 1587. I must confess that, in spite of having known it would, I found myself a little disappointed, and hoping that Mathew Lyons would go ahead some day, and tell the rest of the story.

Now I find that the new paperback edition has “a lengthy afterword taking the story through the end of Ralegh’s life in 1618.” I will most certainly read that too, as the conclusion to a fascinating, well researched, well written tale, and an unusual and intelligent take on well-known facts.