By Jean Roberta
I love historical drama, but as someone once said, the past is a foreign country. They did things differently there.
In a recent television spectacle featuring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I, the never-married queen is courted by the Duc D’Anjou, a brother of the King of France. Their marriage would make a good diplomatic alliance to help England resist a threatened Spanish invasion. Apparently to her surprise, Queen Bess finds that she has feelings for the Duc, beyond her desire to secure her nation and possibly give birth to an heir. The Duc is in his twenties while the Queen is in her forties, but the age gap doesn’t seem to bother either of them. He praises her beauty in charmingly-accented English. He tells her that he likes “pro-TEST-ants,” and that his Catholic faith is a private matter that wouldn’t have to be an issue in their relationship.
However, religion is a serious matter to the English Parliament, and no one in the Queen’s government wants her to marry a Catholic. The Queen could simply overrule all her advisors, including her long-term admirer, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who wanted to marry her for years, but who was repeatedly turned down. In the film version, Queen Bess claims that “Robin’s” status isn’t high enough to match hers, although the sudden death of his first wife (found dead at the foot of a staircase) and the rumours of murder that circulated afterward would have made it reckless for Bess and “Robin” to rush into marriage. For better or worse, she rejects the Duc d’Anjou as well.
So what were the real deal-breakers that prevented Queen Bess from marrying any of her suitors? The age gap between the Queen and the French Duc (especially if she hoped to produce an heir) isn’t shown as a problem for anyone, including the concerned bystanders. The traditional explanation for her persistently single state was that the Queen was “married to her people.”
The theme of “forbidden love,” expressed in secret trysts, is still a compelling subject in erotic romance. It’s hard to imagine an official barrier between two people who are attracted to each other that could really keep them from sneaking some time together. It’s also hard to imagine any difference which couldn’t be seen as a barrier.
Religious differences, formerly a deal-breaker, don’t seem to keep people apart the way they used to. Does this mean that human society has evolved to be more inclusive than in the past? Probably not. Marriages between cousins were considered desirable in some cultures in the past, especially if there was a fortune that could thereby be kept in the family. On the other hand, marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister was considered so incestuous (or squicky for some other reason) that it was outlawed in England in the Victorian Age. Huge age gaps (mostly older men with younger women, but sometimes the reverse) were accepted, but gaps in social class were not. (At least upper-class men didn’t marry the servants, although they were certainly welcome to, ahem, enjoy their company.)
Before the “Gay Rights” movement of the twentieth century, sexual relations between members of the same gender were considered “crimes against nature,” and punished in drastic ways if not kept secret. (Some secrets were really facts that everyone knew and no one mentioned aloud.)
We are all products of our time, whether we want to admit it or not. For Americans in my parents’ generation (born just after the First World War), racial separation was enforced both by “Jim Crow” laws, and by social traditions that generally kept racially-defined groups apart. A mixed-race relationship was a very big deal in that era, although there were a few exceptional couples who managed to stay together.
I doubt if anyone can honestly claim to be free of prejudice in all forms when it comes to sexual attraction. What are the deal-breakers that have made some people in your life seem attractive but inaccessible, or not attractive at all? I’m tempted to do a survey.