A Fresh Perspective on the Later Years of Elizabeth I
Article first published as Book Review: Elizabeth I by Margaret George on Blogcritics.
Be awed by the presence of Elizabeth Tudor, the woman behind the sovereign, as you explore the humanity of the indomitable Virgin Queen of England through the pages of Elizabeth I. Margaret George’s meticulously researched first person account of the last thirty years of the queen’s life is an enthralling breath of fresh air. Biographies of Elizabeth I abound. George gives the Tudor-loving world a unique novel, written in both in Elizabeth’s voice and also that of her childhood nemesis, Lettice Knollys. What was Queen Elizabeth I really like? The novel opens in 1588 when Elizabeth Tudor faces her greatest challenge, the Spanish Armada. Written with a consistently regal tone, the book gives us a mirror into the humanity of Elizabeth, the woman. Yet, the author masterfully incorporates the thoughts, actions and attitudes illuminating the greatness of The Virgin Queen who ruled England for forty-five years. Glimpses into the brilliance and machinations of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh abound. Skillfully woven into the book are both the human and regal facets of the queen who “ruled as much from the heart as from the head.”
We see the regent’s success and love for her people. Queen Elizabeth’s ability to stand for long periods of time seems a metaphor for her triumph as queen. She manages uprisings in Ireland and continued assaults from Spain. She masterfully chooses advisors for her privy council perfectly suited to their jobs. In a nation beset with famine, the queen imbues calm. In an attempt to keep the plague under control, Elizabeth closes theaters and concerts and sends provisions to survivors. We view her humbly conduct an intimate ceremony of kissing and washing the feet of her subjects on Maundy Thursday (modeled after Jesus Christ doing the same for his disciples) while giving each twenty shillings and gifts of food. No sovereign rules without frustrations. Queen Elizabeth’s include controlling the sulking, deceitful Earl of Essex, stepson of her beloved Leicester. She sees her navy successfully avert an attack from the Spanish Armada, only to learn that no needed booty was seized. She juggles insufficient resources to provide food for the needy after three years of failed harvests. To provide her beloved kingdom with funds, she must decide which jewels to pawn. As she approaches the age of seventy, she persists in dodging the matter of her successor, not out of a lack of responsibility but because she wanted to settle it in her own way. Other problems continue: Ireland, Spain, stiff-necked Puritans, and prejudiced Catholics. She watches her most trusted advisors in the Privy Council die off one by one.
The novel brilliantly sheds light on Elizabeth’s humanity without losing any reverence for her scepter. Called a stingy penny-pincher, the queen wore elaborate gowns and owned the finest collection of jewels in Europe. Why? Perception is reality. Her brave show encouraged the nation she pulled out of poverty. Particularly touching scenes depict her feeding broth and reading the Bible to beloved advisors Walsingham and Burghley on their deathbeds. She gallops on horseback across the fields to be alone and endures hot flashes. Not wanting a reminder of her age, she forbids any celebration of her sixtieth birthday. Her favorite pastime—translating philosophy from the Latin.
Queen Elizabeth’s voice is bracketed with that of her cousin, Lettice Knollys, traditionally seen as an ambitious, oft-married hussy and social climber. We see the human side of Lettice as she grieves her son’s deaths and grimly accepts the dwindling of her attractiveness due to aging. Her character provides an interesting perception of the queen. She calls Elizabeth cantankerous and meddlesome, but calmly advises her son Essex on subtle ways to regain the regent’s favor.
The beautiful book cover is dominated by red roses, symbols of the Tudor dynasty. The cover design features a portrait of Elizabeth, resplendent in the pearls that symbolize royalty. The characteristic elaborate “Z” from her signature is worked into the book’s title, Elizabeth I .A shaded image of a young courtier, perhaps that of Robert of Devereux, Earl of Essex, appears to defer to the queen or to intrude into her thoughts. At age ten, while living in Israel, author Margaret George ran out of books to read and began writing novels to amuse herself. Now, a premier historical novelist, known for her intense and impeccable research, she writes England’s most famous queen during the last years of her reign to life. One need only read the Afterword to her book with numerous citations to sources consulted to respect George’s dedication to research. Most interesting is her humble thanks to the queen in her Acknowledgements. “…the spirit of Elizabeth…hovered over the book as it was taking shape and whispered her guidance.”
This extraordinary glimpse into the latter days of Elizabeth’s reign is not only original, but brilliantly cast. Indeed, George’s ability to see inside Elizabeth I’s mind not only informs her historical accuracy, but creates a page-turning look inside the mind of a fascinating woman and regent. A listing of the cast of characters with descriptions of their relationship to the queen would be a helpful addition to this novel. The writing is meticulous, if not at times, a bit too detailed. No author, to this reviewer’s knowledge, has attempted a work of fiction that gives us such a microscope into the humanity of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.
I thank Goodreads.com and Penguin Group USA provided the advance review copy. The opinions expressed are unbiased and wholly those of the reviewer.
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