When Gloriana fancies a brain holiday

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The Independent Online
ASTRONG scent of carnations hung on the air about her. From her ears crystal droplets hung like stars against the cloud of fair curls about her pale face. Beneath, the lace of her gown rose and fell with every breath . . .

People always are surprised on meeting Rosalind Miles, feminist, academic and writer. Their expectations of how the author of The Women's History of the World should look are not fulfilled.

'They usually say, I thought you would be bigger,' said Ms Miles. 'To which I generally reply: I am.'

In the light of her latest work, however, a blockbuster novel about Elizabeth I, which took four years' immersion in the period, Ms Miles's dungaree-free appearance makes perfect sense. It has, in fact, taken on a distinctly Elizabethan tinge. 'Has it?' she said, startled, and then: 'Yes, after I'd written all that stuff about ringlets I took myself off to mon friseur for a set of killer ringlets.'

The novel is, at first sight, as surprising as Ms Miles. Not only has its feminist author included plenty about gowns and ringlets, but its main theme is not Good Queen Bess's politics (though they are dealt with) but her passions, particularly for the handsome Earl of Essex, Robert Dudley.

Viz: ' 'More, madam - ' he broke off, flushed beneath his gypsy-brown sunburn, then lifted his head. 'I dare offer you the truth of my heart . . . You have more than my life, my soul in your hand - you have my eternal love.'

' 'Oh, Robin,' I gasped like a baby through my tears. And folding into him, weakly giving at hips, ankles and knees, I swooned away.'

Rosalind Miles is unapologetic about this. Books about Elizabeth, she said, normally concentrate on the politics. She wanted to go behind the myth of the Virgin Queen. 'We know she was intensely sensual and cared very much about taste and touch and smell. She was unbelievably physical. At 60, she was still dancing and riding - those were the sides I wanted to bring out.'

Male writers such as Paul Johnson, said Ms Miles, have been perplexed by why this noble and majestic creature favoured handsome and lightweight young men about her at court. The answer, she believes, is simple, however personally disconcerting Mr Johnson may find it. Powerful and moneyed women fancy dimboes.

'It conforms with the basic rule,' said Ms Miles. 'That you choose someone complementary to you. Essex, in part, absolutely was the 16th-century equivalent of the Killer Himbo. He was dangerous. He was a bear of very little brain, and yet enormous arrogance.'

Ms Miles smiled calmly. Women she knew who managed top companies, she said, would go home at night after long days of strategy and the exercise of power, and eat their hearts out about some entirely unsuitable man, like their fitness instructor.

'It's the tinderbox combination of stupidity and arrogance that's extremely attractive to intelligent women. So long as you have the power and money to control them. It's called the Californian Cliche. The men Elizabeth surrounded herself with were the perfect brain holiday for an overstressed woman with the cares of the world on her shoulders.'

Sex objects, in other words. We paused to consider this alternative, not to say post-feminist, and even female triumphalist view of history. John Brown, not as a Scottish Svengali, but as Queen Victoria's dimbo? It seemed likely enough. Ms Miles moved to modern times.

'Look at Denis,' said Rosalind Miles.

We looked at Denis, husband to this century's Gloriana, another heroine

of Mr Johnson's. There was a pause while Ms Miles felt for the right adjectives. 'He's easy going, isn't he?

Uncomplicated.'

There is nothing uncomplicated about Ms Miles, any more than there was about Elizabeth I. She read English at Oxford, won prizes there, a PhD at Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute, and an MA with distinction at the Centre for Mass Communication Research at the University of Leicester. Now 43, this is her fifteenth book.

She is, as a result, a living answer to the charge that women lack confidence. 'It's extremely difficult to keep on smiling when men inform you you've a mind like a man,' she said, crisply.

In the course of her work Ms Miles goes to many meetings. They are often, in the way of meetings, tedious. She sometimes enlivens them by imagining which of the men present, if any, she would choose if she could adjourn to a room at the Cafe Royale. Or marks them out of 10. Many of the men present, she believes, are doing precisely the same, so there ought to be no room for surprise.

'Elizabeth spent a lot of time in little rooms with men on their knees,' she said. 'Hanging on the arms of her chair. Now how would you keep your hands off them?'

Though Ms Miles believes that Elizabeth touched, she thinks she never dared to bed Essex, or any of the dimbo gallants at court, at the expense, she believes, of her temper.

'A lot of her recorded utterances are screaming and shouting and slapping her maids,' she said. At the time, much of this behaviour may have been put down to her female nature, rather than frustration. The Elizabethans believed, says Ms Miles, voice scathing, that the womb was unfixed, and might wander upwards and choke its owner.

But have these beliefs much changed? Just last month Charles Goodheart, fellow of Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, declared that 'women' do not get as many top firsts as men because of their lack of testosterone: 'What women lack isn't brains, it's balls,' he said.

At this news Rosalind Miles smote her gowned knee a few times with her fist and uttered a few brief words, probably of Early Middle English origin. Her ear-rings swung angrily in the light and the killer ringlets trembled. The resemblance was unmistakable. 'Oh God] That I were a man]' said Ms Miles suddenly and unexpectedly. 'I would eat his heart in the market-place]'

'I, Elizabeth' is published this week by Sidgwick & Jackson ( pounds 15.99).

(Photographs omitted)

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