Elizabeth I by Margaret George – Book Review

Elizabeth I by Margaret George
Published by Penguin Paperbacks, an imprint of Penguin

Much has been written about Elizabeth I, but the majority of it seems to concentrate on the earlier years of her life. Her alleged affair with Thomas Seymour, her life under her sister Mary’s Catholic rule, and the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley (were they lovers? did he kill his wife in hopes of marrying Elizabeth?) all are highly scrutinized events in historical fiction. The latter part of the reign of Gloriana, however, tends to be largely glossed over. After executing her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, most novelists seem to think that Elizabeth has little else of note, other than the battle with the Spanish Armada and perhaps a few pages about the execution of the Earl of Essex.

Margaret George, however, gifts her readers with an indepth look at Elizabeth’s later years with her latest book, Elizabeth I. George’s book begins with England’s first battle with the Armada, instead of ending there. What follows is the story of a woman at the height of her powers as she begins the decline into old age. Of particular emphasis is Elizabeth’s tumultuous relationship with the Earl of Essex, a man who goes from being a pet of hers to a major threat to her throne.

I must admit, the narrow scope of George’s book surprised me. I’ve previously read her books on Cleopatra and Henry VIII, and they are sweeping epics, covering the majority of the subjects’ lives. Elizabeth I compares to these earlier novels in length, but covering only 15 or so years, it marks a change in style for George; it is not a view of Elizabeth’s entire life, or even her entire reign, but a close look at the events at the end of her life. That period given less than 50 pages by so many novelists is granted nearly 700 pages in George’s work, enabling her to go deep into Elizabeth’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, as well as those of the people around her.

Of particular interest are the sections narrated by Elizabeth’s cousin Lettice. Lettice is often described in novels as looking very like Elizabeth, but even prettier, which would not have endeared her to the queen. The real break between the cousins came, however, when Lettice married Elizabeth’s beloved courtier Robert Dudley (he of the ‘did-they-didn’t-they’ relationship). What is often glossed over, though, is the fact that Lettice was also the mother of the rebellious Earl of Essex, a role that put her even more at odds with her queen.

It is really quite amazing how much new understanding George is able to bring to such an often memorialized woman, reign, and time period. She excels at spending just enough time on events that she is able to convey the full extent of their significance, but not so much time that she belabors her point or bores the reader. Although Elizabeth I is quite long, it never feels overly so. Margaret George has proved once again that she is perhaps the consummate historical novelist of our time. Highly recommended.

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11 comments to Elizabeth I by Margaret George – Book Review

  • I also read her book on Henry VIII, and it’s one of my lasting favorites. When this book came out, I snatched it up, but haven’t had the time to read it yet. Your review was really intriguing because I didn’t know that the book mainly focused on the latter part of Elizabeth’s life, and for some reason, this makes it even more interesting to me. I really think that George has a lot of talent, and I can’t wait to read this one now that I have read your opinions on it. Fantastic review today. I need to grab my copy off the shelf and give it a go!

    • I love, love, love The Autobiography of Henry VIII. The focus on the end of Elizabeth’s life is really interesting, can’t wait to hear what you think!

      • I’d have to bet back into Tudor History mode; but this sounds great! The whole Elizabeth & Dudley speculation (and the prevailing sentiment that they absolutely were lovers, gets kind of boring after awhile.) I loved The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles; but couldn’t make it through Mary, Called Magdalene (there’s a plot thread that I found too excruciating to bear witness to) so this would be a return to more familiar ground :-)

        • Oh, I HAVE Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, should I try to pick it up sometime soon?

          • Oh, yes! It covers her “career” and so many facets: her marriages, John Knox, etc. I really felt for her! I went to Edinburgh right after reading this and the places I had imagined from reading were dead on with the reality! OK, minus the tourists:-)

  • It’s always refreshing when authors choose the less…popular times of a historical figure’s life to concentrate on. I don’t think I’ve read any of this author’s book, but maybe one day!

  • Margaret George writes such long books that I tend to be a bit hesitant to read her. I have started a couple and just never had the staying power. One day, maybe…

  • I love when there’s a focus on a lesser known/often neglected time period. This sounds like a really interesting read. I’ve been on a bit of a historical fiction kick lately and I think this would be a great addition.

  • This was the first book I read by Margaret George and I really enjoyed her writing style. It just so happened that before reading this book, I happened to listen to The Lady Elizabeth by Allison Weir, which covers Elizabeth’s life from the age of 3 up to when she becomes queen. Elizabeth I was then the perfect book to read next. Have you read The Lady Elizabeth? The audio was excellent – the narrator was British and I just loved her accent!

    I have some of Margaret George’s other books on my tbr list – Mary Queen of Scots & the Isles and The Autobiography of Henry VIII. One of the thing I love about reading historical fiction is all the different author’s perspectives on the same people.