Saturday, June 8, 2013

Elizabeth I, by Margaret George

Though I complain sometimes about not being able to find a British historical fiction to read that isn’t about the Tudors, sometimes, you just want to slip into that world.  And that’s what led me to my last read, Elizabeth I, by Margaret George.  George is a widely-respected author of historical fiction because of her methods; her books focus on one major historical figure’s life, the story is presented as an autobiography, and they are researched from here to kingdom come.   George has written about Henry VIII, Mary of Scotts, Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, and all are presented with the same characteristics of Elizabeth I.

Let’s start with a truncated biography of Elizabeth.  Born to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (the woman Henry broke with Rome to marry), Elizabeth was Henry’s second surviving child (the first was Mary by his first wife, Catherine) and a massive a disappointment to her father, who wanted a son desperately.  Only a few years after her birth, Anne and Henry had a falling out of spectacular fashion (read George’s work on Henry, or The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser for more), and Anne was beheaded.  Henry’s next wife gave him the son he wanted - Edward.  The Tudor succession then became Edward, Mary and then Elizabeth – I don’t think anyone actually expected Elizabeth to survive long enough to come to the throne, but that’s exactly what happened.  After only a few years, Edward died; Mary then came to power, but was unpopular and her death was unlamented by most; and finally, Elizabeth took the crown as the sole Tudor heir.

Elizabeth’s early life was fraught with danger – because of her mother, she was never a favorite with her father; as a princess of the blood, many tried to manipulate and control her; when Mary came to power, her life was constantly under threat as Mary feared plots to usurp her centered around her younger sister.  Once she came to power, the difficulties continued – many didn’t believe that Elizabeth could reign alone and urged her to marry, but she wouldn’t; because her father had annulled his marriage to Anne before beheading her, many questioned her legitimacy to reign; and finally, there were always threats to her crown from other contenders, most notably, Mary Queen of Scotts.

Why am I giving you this potted history of Elizabeth’s early life and reign?  Because George doesn’t.  In a departure from her other works, where George follows her main character from childhood to death, Elizabeth I picks up only in the last 15 years of Elizabeth’s life, beginning with the threat of the first Spanish Armada (in 1588).  

Considering how rich and interesting a life Elizabeth led, I was disappointed to see George only treat the closing decade and a half of it.  Granted, those 15 years were full of intrigue, personal drama and historical mile-stones, but still….  Maybe it was the fact that most people know so much about those early years that George didn’t feel the need to write about it?  Never the less, she references passages of Elizabeth’s earlier life in passing, which made me go to the list of other works by the author at the front of the book, thinking that maybe this was a sequel to another, but it’s not…. It’s almost as if George expects her readers to come to this novel with a working knowledge of 16th century England.

The other dynamic to this book that troubled me was the way George (and the book jacket) tried to cast Letitia Knollys as a foil to Elizabeth.  Letitia (or Lettice, as she’s called throughout) was a cousin to Elizabeth who earned her distain by marrying Elizabeth’s paramour Robert Dudley.  After she did that, Elizabeth banished her from court.  George’s story shifts between Elizabeth and Lettice, but in reality, the real parallel story is between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, Lettice’s wayward son.  Essex was a popular figure in England at the time and, if George is to be believed, a petulant and self-centered man-child.  In the end, Essex was executed for leading a failed rebellion against Elizabeth.  On a whole, I found the Lettice/Essex story line(s) to be distracting in a book titled Elizabeth I, and I think George could have left it out in order to focus more on Elizabeth.

Because of the lack of back-story and the divided attention between Elizabeth and Lettice/Essex, Elizabeth I lacks the same charm as George’s other books – I enjoyed the others because I was able to slip into a world and life of another person so completely.  In this work, though it reads really well, I was expecting (and wanted) something different, something more.

So, final verdict?  If you’re knowledgeable about Elizabeth’s life, then I think you’d enjoy this one.  George does focus on a period of Elizabeth’s life and reign that is often over-looked in favour of the titillating nature of her earlier years.  In this book, we really do see the fruition of her political efforts that led her reign to be called England’s Golden Age.  If, however, you’re a novice to English history, I’d recommend you start with George’s work on Henry VIII.  In the end, George wrote a wonderful book (as she always does), but I think it has a smaller audience that her other works.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I grew up in a home with a French-Canadian mother and an English-Canadian father.  This created a lot of ‘good-natured’ tension around the dinner table, especially when it became clear that I got my sense of humour and sensibilities from my Dad.  He and I have the same type of wit which, it wasn’t until I was working retail in a bilingual environment, that I heard described as an “English sense of humour.”  I’m still not entirely sure what defines an English sense of humour, but all my French friends agree that I have one when I ask.

In retrospect, I think that sense of humour explains why one of my favorite books of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.  For the uninitiated, Alice is about a little girl who follows a white rabbit into Wonderland (where silliness prevails), and later goes through the looking glass in her parlor into a land where everything is in reverse.  Carroll wrote these stories while in Oxford, and for the daughters of a family friend.

Now, I have been reading this book almost every year since I was 11.  I first discovered it while my Dad was serving in Bosnia, and it added a bit of levity to what was an extremely stressful time in my life.  I couldn’t put my finger on why I loved the book so much then, and it wasn’t until this reading that I finally caught wise.  What was different?  This time, I read the introductory essay in my edition (by Roger Lancelyn Green) and it all made sense.

According to Green, what makes this work to accessible to both adults and children, and what has made it an enduring classic, is that it is completely logical.  Carroll (according to Green) wrote pure silliness, but never departed from sensible logic, making a set of completely impossible and ludicrous happening sensible.  It’s an amazing feat.  Want an example?  One of the first things Alice encounters when she enters Wonderland is a collection of animals (mice, crabs, pelicans, a dodo) swimming in a puddle of her tears.  Upon exiting the water, they look for a way to get dry:

At last the Mouse, who seemed to be a person of some authority among them, called out ‘Sit down, all of you, and listen to me!  I’ll soon make you dry enough!’  They all sad down at once, in a large ring, with the Mouse in the middle…
‘Ahem!’ said the Mouse with an important air. ‘Are you all ready?  This is the driest thing I know.  Silence all round, if you please!  “William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpations and conquest.  Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria ----“ ‘
‘Ugh!’ said the Lory, with a shiver…
‘I proceed.  “Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him; and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable ---“ ‘
‘Found what?’ said the Duck.
‘Found it,’ the Mouse replied rather crossly: ‘of course you know what “it” means.”
‘I know what “it” means well enough, when I find a thing,’ said the Duck: ‘it’s generally a frog, or a worm.  The question is, what did the archbishop find?’

That passage, in my mind, is a piece of silly genius.  Since when is a mouse the most preeminent animal in a group?  And the political history behind William the Conqueror is indeed dry to most people (especially children), but the play on words between a dry concept and getting dry is well done.  Finally, the question of what ‘it’ is – the Mouse is trying so hard to be correct in his form, but his audience is taking him quite literally, reducing his efforts to the pedantic.  

And the entire book is written in this kind of vein.  I say again – genius.

The other thing worth mentioning about Alice is the contribution that the books, and Carroll, made to our literary tradition and the English language.  This book, whether you know it or not, introduced a set of ideas, poems, and words into our every-day life that are hard to ignore.  One of the most famous poems in the work is the Jabberwocky.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, I strongly encourage you to check it out, and reread it multiple times.  The other famous poem from this work is The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Both have contributed to our collective language; as one example of many, the Jabberwocky introduced the word ‘chortled’ to our language, and The Walrus gave us the immortal lines: “The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things / Of shoes and ships and sealing wax / Of cabbages and kings.”  You might not have known where they came from, but I guarantee you’ve heard them, and you’ll notice them now in the future if you stumble across them.

So, final verdict?  Oh my god, read this book.  Come to it was a sense of whimsy and a light heart, but also looking for the logic behind Carroll’s words and thoughts – even in the most nonsensical passage, there is an intrinsic logic that, once found, enriches the text immensely.  This is a book that I come back to regularly because of its ability to impart silliness into a life that is so often focused on serious and pressing things - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass lets the reader (me, at least) step out of the real world, and into the light-hearted world of Carroll’s characters.  

This is a long review, I know, but I want to leave you with one last passage from the book:

[Said Alice to the Cheshire Cat] ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where ---‘
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘--- so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’