Margaret George’s latest novel, Elizabeth I, is not a book that could have been conceived of, or written by, a young woman. George’s insight and understanding of what it is to grow old (according to Wikipedia she is 68 years old) is what sets this novel, which focuses on the last thirty years of Elizabeth’s life, apart from the several hundred others about her (at least 50 of which are in print as I write) because you have to be aware of your own mortality to understand it enough to write about it.
The book opens with England facing invasion from the Spanish Armada. The battle is inevitable, and Elizabeth is prepared. This Elizabeth really is married to England, and you feel this throughout the novel. When Elizabeth narrates, the voice is regal. Physically, she’s suffering through hot flashes, aching bones and is a bit forgetful, but she keeps the “show” alive—fantastical dresses, amazing jewels, and pageantry. She’s wise—she’s the sum of life experiences about her legitimacy, scandalous affairs (Thomas Seymour, Robert Dudley), rebellion and Reformation and war with Spain. She is old, burying her closest confidantes – Robert Dudley, Blanche Parry, William Cecil, Henry Carey, Francis Walsingham—and realizes she’s next.
Many authors paint Elizabeth as the vain, older woman who believed in a love affair with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a much younger man—but George’s Elizabeth is smarter than that. She sees Essex for the egotistical man he is, tolerates his foibles and failings, seeing him as harmless until it is nearly too late and he mounts a credible rebellion.
Because few authors have focused on the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, not many realize the challenges she faced at home and abroad. She dealt with poverty and famine and continued religious strife between Catholics, Protestants and Puritans, rebellion from the Earl of Essex and of course, death. Abroad, she faced down the might of Spain, quashed rebellion in Ireland, and founded colonies in Virginia.
So many books about Elizabeth revolve around the love story between her and Robert Dudley. This is not that kind of novel—it is a thoughtful book, not a love story—unless you consider it a love story between Elizabeth and England. And, though it took me a while to make up my mind, I like this Elizabeth who is more disciplined, less romantic than most portrayals.
The novel is narrated in two voices: Elizabeth’s—regal, sometimes cynical, always shrewd; and the more earthy, sensual and desperately ambitious voice of her cousin, Lettice Knollys (granddaughter of Mary Boleyn). Lettice is Elizabeth’s alter ego—she is the sum of choices Elizabeth did not make, i.e., to be a wife, mother and lover. Her promiscuity stands in sharp contrast to Elizabeth’s virginity. She looks like the Queen, only younger and still attractive enough to attract Elizabeth’s long-time love, Robert Dudley, and when the two marry Elizabeth banishes them from court, but Lettice craves reinstatement—missing the limelight and boisterous court life. Lettice pins her hopes for reinstatement at Court on her beautiful, gifted but rash son Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. Those hopes end with third husband and her son being executed. I can’t say I liked Lettice very much, but as a foil, almost a doppelgänger to Elizabeth, her character is perfect.
I’ve now read most of Margaret George’s novels and this one ranks up there with The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles as a favorite. I read this book twice, and liked it even more the second time, when I understood the plot and could follow the depth and nuances George brings to her characters. It is beautifully researched, evocatively written and a satisfying, thoughtful read. Like Elizabeth, and George, I’m not getting any younger, and I appreciate a novel that celebrates the older woman and mighty Queen Elizabeth became.
Confession: It was this book that sent me to an e-reader (after I got my autographed hardcover copy from Margaret George). At 688 pages, it is a heavy read – I did not mind the length as much as the weight! When I heard George speak about the book at a reading she talked about how her editors always want her to write shorter novels, but she says she cannot seem to! Perhaps it is because she researches her subject so thoroughly that it is hard to leave anything on the cutting room floor.
Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George was published in April 2011 by Viking