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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