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Kenilworth by Walter Scott
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Kenilworth (1821)

by Walter Scott

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Pity Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester and favourite of the Virgin Queen. Such a status was perilous, for the Queen loved to play off courtiers against each other and there were many who would have been delighted to replace Dudley. Even worse for Dudley, the queen was a jealous sort and while not willing to elevate Dudley to royal consort, she was not about to see him as anyone else's consort either.

Walter Scott has taken the bare bones of this court drama and created a completely reworked account of Dudley's real first wife, Amy Robsart, using his comprehensive knowledge of Elizabethan England to create a novel of intrigue, drama and just plain old enjoyable reading that rivals Dumas. Kenilworth is set in the year 1575, a full fifteen years after the death under strange circumstances of the historical Amy Robsart. Scott used this well known death to create the atmosphere of suspense in his novel.

He starts at Cunmor Hall, where Amy lived quietly in seclusion, the source of much speculation in the village, where her identity was a mystery and where it was believed she was the paramour of either the tenant of Leicester's hall, or Richard Varney, Leicester's aide. The truth was that she was secretly married to Leicester and was being held virtual prisoner by these men. While Dudley kept her there in conditions befitting his Countess, despite her repeated requests he refused to announce their marriage, fearing Elizabeth's wrath. Dudley was nothing if not ambitious. As he explained it to Amy
...you speak of what you understand not. We that toil in courts are like those that climb a mountain of loose sand -- we dare make no halt until some projecting rock afford us a secure stance and resting place -- if we pause, soon we slide down by our own weight, an object of universal derision. I stand high, but I stand not secure enough to follow my own inclination. To declare my marriage, were to be the artificer of my own ruin --

Meanwhile back at Court in London, Leicester was a virtual captive of the Queen, afraid to leave for fear of losing his political war with the Earl of Sussex, his opportunities for financial and political advancement, and most of all his coveted status as favourite. Scott, intrigued by Elizabeth and a scholar of her era, sets up her management of the rivalry between Leicester and Sussex
...to bridle him who thought himself highest in her esteem, by the fears he must entertain of another equally trusted, if not equally beloved, were arts which she used throughout her reign...
...it might be in general said, that the Earl of Sussex had been most serviceable to the Queen, while Leicester was most dear to the woman...


Leicester did not realize it, but even while threatened from within the Court, his position was about to be threatened from outside. Amy's rejected suitor Tressilian, believing Varney to have seduced her, took the matter to Court, with Sussex as his intermediary. Leicester's secret was almost revealed, suppressed only by Varney's outrageous deception of the Queen.

Elizabeth was about to make one of her famous progresses. She had granted Dudley the honour of receiving her and the Court at his estate at Kenilworth. Thither she also ordered Sussex, Varney, and the absent Amy Robsart. Amy, knowing only that Dudley would be entertaining the Queen, insisted to him that she be present as his Countess. Leicester and Varney could not allow her to do any such thing. Tressilian wanter her there to plead what he believed to be her wrongful confinement. How all this was managed and the dread over Amy's fate provide the suspense for the rest of the book.

Scott has used the Queen's actual historical progress to Kenilworth as his backdrop for the events there. She was there for nineteen days. Scott has many of his supporting characters take part in the great progression north to the estate, a journey that seems as colourful and rich as a medieval progression. Leicester entertained the Queen with jousts, bear baiting, feasts, dances and masques, and it seemed all of England took to the roads toward the castle to participate. Elizabeth herself had an entourage of over four hundred people. While Leicester was managing all this, behind the scenes the Leicester of the novel had to deliver himself and his reputation from the web of intrigues that threatened not only him, but also Amy at every turn.

[Kenilworth] is masterful story telling and although there is almost no historical accuracy as far as the relations among the characters are concerned, it is an excellent picture of the age written with a novelist's skill and a historian's knowledge. Writing almost seventy years later, no less an author than Thomas Hardy said "... no historian's Queen Elizabeth was ever so perfectly a woman as the fictitious Elizabeth of Kenilworth". Kenilworth is also probably one of the most accessible of Scott's novels for today's readers. It is one of his very few set outside Scotland. Consequently the language, history and digs at Scottish factions that defeat many readers are not to be found here. Instead, there is a far more straightforward narrative. So, if you've ever wondered about reading Scott, this may be a good place to start. Then you can go on to his other great works.
1 vote SassyLassy | Mar 3, 2017 |
This historical novel is based extremely loosely around the events of the Elizabethan Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester's marriage to Amy Robsart, the controversial and tragic ending of which formed the subject of the historical investigation book Death and the Virgin by Chris Skidmore that I read recently. This novel does massive violence to the historical facts and one wonders why Scott bothered, given that the real historical facts are already exciting and scandalous enough to have formed a good novel, whether one takes the view that Amy's death in 1560 was murder, suicide or a tragic accident. This novel takes place in 1575 and as well as Amy being alive fifteen years after her death, Shakespeare is at the height of his literary powers here at the age of 11. All this aside, taken as a romantic historical novel, it is as well written as Scott's other works, though it lacks the punch of Ivanhoe. I was quite relieved to have reached the end after nearly two weeks of reading, though it is only 285 pages in this edition. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Oct 11, 2015 |
This is somewhat different from the other of Scott's books I have read. This has a Tudor setting, being based on the period when Elizabeth was enamoured of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. On progress, she visits Kenilworth, his castle, were he has built a wing for her accommodation and laid out gardens for her pleasure. It's still there, albeit ruined, but you can visit and walk in the footsteps of history. Having visited it was interesting to hear the place described in this book.
It takes quite some time to get going, but gradually the tale of Amy, Dudley's wife, emerges. There is a clash between her and Dudley's ambition to be King. It all comes about in a short period of time, but the ending is very abrupt. There is certainly only a paragraph or two to deal with the aftermath, which sat oddly compared to the very slow and detailed buildup to the main core of the story.
I assume it is a style of the time in that an awful lot seems to take place in speech, and quite convoluted speeches, at that. It needs a certain level of attention, otherwise it was quite easy to miss a critical plot point that was hidden in the midst of a lot of talk. Good, and an interesting read, but not great. ( )
  Helenliz | Sep 13, 2015 |
Some of Scott's historical fictions succeed, but Kenilworth isn't one of them. The problem is that the history is far too fictionalized. Leicester's marriage to Amy Robsart wasn't the enormous secret that Scott made it out to be; Scott's dates are all wrong (references to Shakespeare, for example, to Troilus and Cressida in particular as just one example); and he applies this highly fictionalized history to such a well-known historical figure as the Earl of Leicester.

Scott fictionalizes his history in other Waverly novels, of course, one example being Anne of Geierstein, in which he gives Oxford a non-existent son, Arthur; but this is less jarring considering that, at least to myself and probably to most contemporary readers, late fifteenth-century English history is much less well known than Elizabethan history so that John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, is a character we know only through Scott's own historical fiction.

As an historical novel, Kenilworth, however entertaining, is just too factually off the mark for my taste. ( )
1 vote CurrerBell | Jun 20, 2014 |
Engrossing historical novel in which pageantry of Elizabethan court is described fully. Not historically accurate, more of a character study of ambition vs. love.
  ritaer | Feb 14, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Scott, Walterprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Davenport, BasilIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140436545, Paperback)

In the court of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is favoured above all the noblemen of England. It is rumoured that the Queen may chose him for her husband, but Leicester has secretly married the beautiful Amy Robsart. Fearing ruin if this were known, he keeps his lovely young wife a virtual prisoner in an old country house. Meanwhile Leicester's manservant Varney has sinister designs on Amy, and enlists an alchemist to help him further his evil ambitions. Brilliantly recreating the splendour and pageantry of Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare, Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth herself among its characters, "Kenilworth" (1821) is a compelling depiction of intrigue, power struggles and superstition in a bygone age.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:01 -0400)

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In the court of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is favoured above all the noblemen of England. It is rumoured that the Queen may chose him for her husband, but Leicester has secretly married the beautiful Amy Robsart. Fearing ruin if this were known, he keeps his lovely young wife a virtual prisoner in an old country house. Meanwhile Leicester's manservant Varney has sinister designs on Amy, and enlists an alchemist to help him further his evil ambitions. Brilliantly recreating the splendour and pageantry of Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare, Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth herself among its characters, Kenilworth (1821) is a compelling depiction of intrigue, power struggles and superstition in a bygone age.… (more)

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