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.

1 comment:

  1. My thoughts differ from yours on this one somewhat. I liked the fact that George focused only on Elizabeth's later life, and that she didn't get caught up in focusing on Elizabeth's romantic entanglements as so many other novels about Elizabeth I do. But since I'm pretty familiar with Elizabeth I's life, not having any of the background on her earlier exploits included in this book wasn't a problem for me.

    Here's my review if you're interested:

    I've only read a couple of George's other novels, but thus far my favourite is her book on Mary, Queen of Scots. I really need to get to her book on Henry VIII.