The Elizabeth Complex


Karen Joy Fowler is particularly difficult to study clinically...

— Nancy J. Chodorow

Fathers love as well. — Mine did, I know,
— but still with heavier brains.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning

There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother. Of course, she would hardly have remembered her mother. At three months, Elizabeth had been moved into her own household with her own servants; her parents became visitors rather than caretakers. At three years, the whole affair was history —her mother’s head on Tower Green, her father’s re-marriage eleven days later. Because the charge was adultery and, in one case, incest, her own parentage might easily have come into question. But there has never been any doubt as to who her father was. “The lion’s cub,” she called herself, her father’s daughter, and from him she got her red hair, her white skin, her dancing, her gaiety, her predilection for having relatives beheaded, and her sex.

Her sex was the problem, of course. Her mother’s luck at cards had been bad all summer. But the stars were good, the child rode low in the belly, and the pope, they had agreed, was powerless. They were expecting a boy.

After the birth, the jousts and tournaments had to be cancelled. The musicians were sent away, except for single pipe, frolicsome, but thin. Her mother, spent and sick from childbirth, felt the cold breath of disaster on her neck.

Her father put the best face on it. Wasn’t she healthy? Full weight and lusty? A prince would surely follow. A poor woman gave the princess a rosemary bush hung all with gold spangles. “Isn’t that nice?” her mother’s ladies said brightly, as if it weren’t just a scented branch with glitter.

Elizabeth had always loved her father. She watched sometimes when he held court. She saw the deference he commanded. She saw how careful he was. He could not allow himself to be undone with passion or with pity. The law was the law, he told the women who came before him. A woman’s wages belonged to her husband. He could mortgage her property if he liked, forfeit it to creditors. That his children were hungry made no difference. The law acknowledged the defect of her sex. Her father could not do less.

He would show the women these laws in his books. He would show Elizabeth. She would make a little mark with her fingernail in the margin beside them. Some night when he was asleep, some night when she had more courage than she had ever had before, she would slip into the library and cut the laws she had marked out of the books. Then the women would stop weeping and her father would be able to do as he liked.

Her father read to her The Taming of the Shrew. He never seemed to see that she hated Petruchio with a passion a grown woman might have reserved for an actual man. “You should have been a boy,” he told her, when she brought home the prize in Greek, ahead of all the boys in her class.

Her older brother died when she was a small girl. Never again was she able to bear the sound of a tolling bell. She went with her father to the graveyard, day after day. He threw himself on the grave, arms outstretched. At home, he held her in his arms and wept onto her sleeve, into her soft brown hair. “My daughter,” he said. His arms tightened. “If only you had been a boy.”

She tried to become a boy. She rode horseback, learned Latin. She remained a girl. She sewed. She led the Presbyterian Girls’ Club. The club baked and stitched to earn the money to put a deserving young man through seminary. When he graduated, they went as a group to see him preach his first sermon. They sat in the front. He stood up in the clothes they had made for him. “I have chosen my text for today,” he said from the pulpit. “I Tim 2:12. ’ I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but be in silence.’“

Elizabeth rose. She walked down the long aisle of the church and out into the street. The sun was so fiery it blinded her for a moment. She stood at the top of the steps, waiting until she could see them. The door behind her opened. It opened again and again. The Presbyterian Girls’ Club had all come with her.

She had, they said, a pride like summer. She rode horseback, learned Latin and also Greek, which her father had never studied. One winter day she sat with all her ladies in the park, under an oak, under a canopy, stitching with her long, beautiful, white fingers. If the other ladies were cold, if they wished to be inside, they didn’t say so. They sat and sewed together, and one of them sang aloud and the snowflakes flew about the tent like moths. Perhaps Elizabeth was herself cold and wouldn’t admit it, or perhaps, even thin as she was, she was not cold and this would be an even greater feat. There was no way to know which was true.

Perhaps Elizabeth was merely teasing. Her fingers rose and dipped quickly over the cloth. From time to time, she joined her merry voice to the singer’s. She had a strong, animal aura, a force. Her spirits were always lively. John Knox denounced her in church for her fiddling and flinging. She and her sister both, he said, were incurably addicted to joyosity.

Her half-brother had never been lusty. When he died, some years after her father, long after his own mother, hail the color of fire fell in the city, thunder rolled low and continuous through the air. This was a terrible time. It was her time.

Her father opposed her marriage. It was not marriage itself, he opposed; no, he had hoped for that. It was the man. A dangerous radical. An abolitionist. A man who would never earn money. A man who could then take her money. Hadn’t she sat in his court and seen this often enough with her very own eyes?

For a while she was persuaded. When she was strong enough, she rebelled. She insisted that the word obey be stricken from the ceremony. Nor would she change her name. “There is a great deal in a name,” she wrote her girlfriend. “It often signifies much and may involve a great principle. This custom is founded on the principle that white men are lords of all. I cannot acknowledge this principle as just; therefore I cannot bear the name of another.” She meant her first name by this. She meant Elizabeth.

Her family’s power and position went back to the days when Charles I sat on the English throne. Her father was astonishingly wealthy, spectacularly thrifty. He wasted no money on electricity, bathrooms, or telephones. He made small, short-lived exceptions for his youngest daughter. She bought a dress; she took a trip abroad. She was dreadfully spoiled, they said later.

But spinsters are generally thought to be entitled to compensatory trips abroad and she had reached the age where marriage was unlikely. Once men had come to court her in the cramped parlor. They faltered under the grim gaze of her father. There is no clear evidence that she ever blamed him for this, although there is, of course, the unclear evidence.

She did not get on with her step-mother. “I do not call her mother,” she said. She, herself, was exactly the kind of woman her father esteemed —quiet, reserved, respectful. Lustless and listless. She got from him her wide beautiful eyes, her sky-colored eyes, her chestnut hair.

When Elizabeth was one year old, her father displayed her, quite naked, to the French ambassadors. They liked what they saw. Negotiations began to betroth her to the Duke of Angouleme, negotiations that foundered later for financial reasons.

She was planning to address the legislature. Her father read it in the paper. He called her into the library and sat with her before the fire. The blue and orange flames wrapped around the logs, whispering into smoke. “I beg you not to do this,” he said. “I beg you not to disgrace me in my old age. I’ll give you the house in Seneca Falls.”

She had been asking for the house for years. “No,” Elizabeth said.

“Then I’ll disinherit you entirely.”

“If you must.”

“Let me hear this speech.”

As he listened his eyes filled with tears. “Surely, you have had a comfortable and happy life,” he cried out. “Everything you could have wanted has been supplied. How can someone so tenderly brought up feel such things? Where did you learn such bitterness?”

“I learnt it here,” she told him. “Here, when I was child, listening to the women who brought you their injustices.” Her own eyes, fixed on his unhappy face, spilled over. “Myself, I am happy,” she told him. “I have everything. You’ve always loved me. I know this.”

He waited a long time in silence. “You’ve made your points clear,” he said finally. “But I think I can find you even more cruel laws than those you’ve quoted.” Together they reworked the speech. On towards morning, they kissed each other and retired to their bedrooms. She delivered her words to the legislature. “You are your father’s daughter,” the senators told her afterwards, gracious if unconvinced. “Today, your father would be proud.”

“Your work is a continual humiliation to me,” he said. “To me, who’s had the respect of my colleagues and my country all my life. You have seven children. Take care of them.” The next time she spoke publicly he made good on his threats and removed her from his will.

“Thank god for a girl,” her mother said when Elizabeth was born. She fell into an exhausted sleep. When she awoke she looked more closely. The baby’s arms and shoulders were thinly dusted with dark hair. She held her eyes tightly shut, and when her mother forced them open, she could find no irises. The doctor was not alarmed. The hair was hypertrichosis, he said. It would disappear. Her eyes were fine. Her father said that she was beautiful.

It took Elizabeth ten days to open her eyes on her own. At the moment she did, it was her mother who was gazing straight into them. They were already violet.

When she was three years old they attended the silver jubilee for George V. She wore a Parisian dress of organdie. Her father tried to point out the royal ladies. “Look at the King’s horse!“ Elizabeth said instead. The first movie she was ever taken to see was The Little Princess with Shirley Temple.

Her father had carried her in his arms. He dressed all in joyous yellow. He held her up for the courtiers to see. When he finally had a son, he rather lost interest. He wrote his will to clarify the order of succession. At this point, he felt no need to legitimize his daughters, although he did recognize their place in line for the throne. He left Elizabeth an annual income of three thousand pounds. And if she ever married without sanction, the will stated, she was to be removed from the line of succession, “as though the said Lady Elizabeth were then dead.”

She never married. Like Penelope, she maintained power by promising to marry first this and then that man; she turned her miserable sex to her advantage. She made an infamous number of these promises. No other woman in history has begun so many engagements and died a maid. “The Queen did fish for men’s souls and had so sweet a bait that no-one could escape from her network,” they said at court. She had a strong animal aura.

A muskiness. When she got married for the first time her father gave her away. She was only seventeen years old, and famously beautiful, the last brunette in a world of blondes. Her father was a guest at her third wedding. “This time I hope her dreams come true,” he told the reporters. “I wish her the happiness she so deserves.” He was a guest at her fifth wedding, as well.

Her parents had separated briefly when she was fourteen years old. Her mother, to whom she had always been closer, had an affair with someone on the set; her father took her brother and went home to his parents. Elizabeth may have said that his moving out was no special loss. She has been quoted as having said this.

She never married. She married seven different men. She married once and had seven children. She never married. The rack was in constant use during the latter half of her reign. Unexplained illnesses plagued her. It was the hottest day of the year, a dizzying heat. She went into the barn for Swansea pears. Inexplicably the loft was cooler than the house. She said she stayed there half an hour in the slatted light, the half coolness. Her father napped inside the house.

“I perceive you think of our father’s death with a calm mind,” her half brother, the new king, noted.

“It was a pleasant family to be in?” the Irish maid was asked. Her name was Bridget, but she was called Maggie by the girls, because they had once had another Irish maid they were fond of and she’d had that name.

“I don’t know how the family was. I got along all right.”

“You never saw anything out of the way?”

“No, sir.”

“You never saw any conflict in the family?”

“No, sir.”

“Never saw the least —any quarreling or anything of that kind?”

“No, sir.”

The half hour between her father settling down for his nap and the discovery of murder may well be the most closely examined half hour in criminal history. The record is quite specific as to the times. When Bridget left the house, she looked at the clock. As she ran, she heard the city hall bell toll. Only eight minutes are unaccounted for.

After the acquittal she changed her name to Lizbeth. “There is one thing that hurts me very much,” she told the papers. “They say I don’t show any grief. They say I don’t cry. They should see me when I am alone.”

Her father died a brutal, furious, famous death. Her father died quietly of a stroke before her sixth wedding. After her father died, she discovered he had reinserted her into his will. She had never doubted that he loved her. She inherited his great fortune, along with her sister. She found a sort of gaiety she’d never had before.

She became a devotee of the stage, often inviting whole casts home for parties, food, and dancing. Her sister was horrified; despite the acquittal they had become a local grotesquerie. The only seemly response was silence, her sister told Lizbeth, who responded to this damp admonition with another party.

The sound of a pipe and tabor floated through the palace. Lord Sempill went looking for the source of the music. He found the queen dancing with Lady Warwick. When she had become queen, she had taken a motto. Semper Eadem, it was. Always the Same. This motto had first belonged to her mother.

She noticed Lord Semphill watching her through the drapes. “Your father loved to dance,” he said awkwardly, for he had always been told this. He was embarrassed to be caught spying on her.

“Won’t you come and dance with us?” she asked. She was laughing at him. Why not laugh? She had survived everything and everyone. She held out her arms. Lord Semphill was suddenly, deeply moved to see the queen, at her age!, bending and leaping into the air like the flame on a candle, twirling this way and then that, like the tongue in a lively bell.

Copyright © 1996 by Karen Joy Fowler
First published in Crank! 6, April 1996