One might think that reading through 688 pages is daunting but I tend to prefer longer novels – they allow me to really reside in the book and get to know the characters. One of my favorite female heroines is Elizabeth the First and one of my favorite historical novelists is Margaret George so I figured this would be a perfect combination – and I was right! For me knowing more about the Tudor era and what transpired through historical fiction is like icing on the proverbial cake. I love that era and what went on in that time. To be able to imagine and know what could have actually happened and no better than Margaret George to do it for me.
Unlike most historical fiction novels, even many of George’s previous works, Elizabeth I doesn’t start at her birth and move forward from there. Instead the book begins in 1588, during Pope Sixtus V’s call to the Catholic faithful to aid in the deposition of “that wicked queen of England, the pretender” Queen Elizabeth. By this time, Bess has occupied the throne for thirty years and has faced many a threat to her crown, both from within and without the realm. Now she must deal with the greatest threat of all, the famed Spanish Armada which, armed with the Pope’s blessing, sails towards England’s shores with invasion and conquest as its goals. What follows is an intimate look at Elizabeth’s life as she navigates this and other crises during the last fifteen years of her reign, detailing both her political machinations as well as the lesser-known moments of her private life.
The novel is co-narrated by Elizabeth herself and begins in 1588 as she enters late middle age . Co-narrator is her cousin, Lettice Knollys – the woman who had the audacity to actually marry the queen’s main squeeze – Robert Dudley, The Earl of Leicester. Covering the last 25 years of Elizabeth’s illustrious reign this book puts a very human face on the great Queen – complete with her need to keep notes to jog her memory, hot flashes that are troublesome, the sadness of the loss of more and more long time friends and trusted advisers.
The characters are rounded out, well developed and made very human – among the stand-outs are William Shakespeare, Francis Drake, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, William and Robert Cecil and the indomitable Earl of Essex – Robert Deveraux, the step-son of Robert Dudley and the son of Lettice Knollys- who Elizabeth had taken under her wing and upon whom she had lavished many rewards and titles.
Ms George’s use of dialog and description draw us easily into her story. It’s as if we are the proverbial “little birds” sitting on the shoulders of her characters, seeing and hearing all the private and mysterious secrets of Elizabeth, Lettice, her Deliahish cousin, and her beloved men think and do. Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s life-long love tugs at our hearts while we feel her longing and heartbreak over his loyalties, desires and, then betrayals.
Although George has taken a few liberties with timing and the placement of personages, which she dutifully notes in her afterword, her faithfulness to historical accuracy is impressive, yet never dry or tinged with an academic monotone. Elizabeth and her court come to life; they are living, breathing people, not dissimilar from you or I in their desires or feelings.
George immerses you in the time period, to where you can hear the rustle and hissing of silken dresses as Elizabeth strides the halls of Whitehall, feel the sting of a chill drizzle as she rides out upon the grounds of Greenwich Park, hear the rambunctious music fueling the unfettered Twelfth Night celebrations. Though much of Elizabeth’s life is unknown, especially her private interactions with her close confidants and advisors, George presents those scenes so realistically, it’s hard to believe those conversations didn’t take place exactly as she describes. Elizabeth, both as a woman and as a ruler, was an enigmatic figure, a woman of contradictions in her behavior and quixotic in her moods. No one in her court ever really knew her, which was just as she liked it, but which makes her all the more alluring and frustrating to later generations. However, George has done a superb job of making a window into Elizabeth’s soul, even as Elizabeth, so she famously said, would not do unto others, presenting a fresh, clear-eyed perspective on this complex woman.