Christie Dickason’s 17th century-set historical novel The King’s Daughter is about Princess Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England/IV of Scotland. By extention, it’s also the story of her biracial slave, Thalia, given to her by her mother.I found it to be a fascinating look at the issues of ownership of the day, whether it be about women or people of African descent.
Elizabeth and Thalia’s relationship is awkward at first, with Elizabeth demanding truth from Thalia and, like a true monarch of the time, being furious when she didn’t like it. But eventually she begins to see the value in a companion who she can rely on for the absolute truth, and there’s several references to the fact that they are both slaves to men – Elizabeth’s price is just higher. Elizabeth and Thalia become very close and Elizabeth eventually frees Thalia and encourages her to seek her fortune in the more tolerant, democratic New Colonies of Virginia. (Sorry, my American history is a little rusty; remind me how that worked out for black women again?) It’s one of those relationships that doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test because so much of their conversations are based around the ownership of women by men, but I loved Thalia’s insights and the two women’s eventual support one one another.
Elizabeth’s father, King James, is decadent and temperamental and expects absolute obedience from her and her older brother Henry. When she objects to being married off to whever he sees fit based on his whims that day – weather he be old, sickly, of an objectionable religion, James doesn’t care for his daughter’s happiness, only whatever spoils an advantageous marriage will bring him. It’s heartbreaking to read of Elizabeth being bandied about between the princes and monarchs of Europe with little or no care between the men of Elizabeth’s happiness.
Ironically, he settles on Frederick, Elector Palaine, which is a love match. (Of course, James didn’t plan this, it just happened that the German prince and Elizabeth were highly compatible.) But when Henry dies – bumping Elizabeth up to second-in-line after sickly younger brother Charles – he decides that her stock has gone up and a mere German prince is no longer good enough for a potential future Queen of England. He eventually decides the marriage is in his/England’s best interest after all, but that doesn’t stop him from considering Elizabeth his property even after the weddding. He goes so far as to barge in after the wedding night to check that the marriage has been consummated and tells them that they had better give him a Stuart heir soon. He insist that Elizabeth will be tended to by a midwife of his choosing; Frederick interjects and tells him that in childbearing matters, the choice will lie with Elizabeth. I liked that Frederick stood up for his wife’s wishes, although it would have been nice if there had been some mention of the fact that, while Frederick was more considerate to her choice, her ‘choice’ was still at the whim of the man who controlled her; the man-as-husband just happened to be more benevolent than the man-as-father.
That’s the main story. There’s also an small but pivotal exchange between Elizabeth and her mother, Anne of Denmark. James took her children away when they were babies and broke her heart; as a result she is distant towards Elizabeth and advises her against falling in love with her children. Elizabeth is hurt by her mother’s rejection and shocked by her cynicism; it provides the foundation for her desire to marry for love to a man who gives her a say in their marriage – at least when it comes to their children. Again, it would have been nice to see the addendum Elizabeth’s equality in her marriage was entirely dependant on Frederick’s magnamity and not any legal rights she had, but I liked how it illustrated how much power James had. He could take Anne’s children away, he could use them as pawns in his political games, he could banish her from her residence and take mistresses, and she could do nothing. No wonder she was bitter and cynical.
There’s also a small section after Henry dies and Charles becomes first-in-line; from the dependant younger brother, he becomes a little tyrant. He demands Elizabeth’s pet dog Belle, saying ‘she’s prettier than any of my bitches’; when Elizabeth refuses, Charles has Belle stolen – telling her she should have given him Belle when he had asked – and when she appeals to James, he informed her that Charles has every right, as his heir. Basically, that Charles has every right to take his sister’s favorite possessions because he’s a boy and she’s a girl, and first-in-line to the throne to boot. Of course, when Elizabeth leaves for Germany, Charles is all ‘what am I going to do without you’; Elizabeth is tempted to reply ‘very much what you have always done – exactly as you like’. What, so Charles just expected her to forget that he took her beloved pet when he decided he needed her again? Even though she didn’t say it out loud, I liked that Elizabeth was happy to let Charles stew in his own juices and realised that she had lost her brother to his own sense of entitlement and there was no point in trying to appeal to him. And I really liked this early illustration of Charles; someone who took what he wanted from whoever he liked with a deep sense of divine right-inspired entitlement. It was this entitlement that caused him to be ousted in the English revolution a few years later.
From a feminist perspective, as much as I was disappointed by Verona Bennet’s The People’s Queen, that’s how much I loved The King’s Daughter. If you like English historical fiction, then go read this book.