Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review: Elizabeth I by Margaret George

Synopsis from

One of today's premier historical novelists, Margaret George dazzles here as she tackles her most difficult subject yet: the legendary Elizabeth Tudor, queen of enigma-the Virgin Queen who had many suitors, the victor of the Armada who hated war; the gorgeously attired, jewel- bedecked woman who pinched pennies. England's greatest monarch has baffled and intrigued the world for centuries. But what was she really like? 

In this novel, her flame-haired, lookalike cousin, Lettice Knollys, thinks she knows all too well. Elizabeth's rival for the love of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and mother to the Earl of Essex, the mercurial nobleman who challenged Elizabeth's throne, Lettice had been intertwined with Elizabeth since childhood. This is a story of two women of fierce intellect and desire, one trying to protect her country, and throne, the other trying to regain power and position for her family and each vying to convince the reader of her own private vision of the truth about Elizabeth's character. Their gripping drama is acted out at the height of the flowering of the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dudley, Raleigh, Drake-all of them swirl through these pages as they swirled through the court and on the high seas. 

My Review

4.5 Stars

Elizabeth I, the latest release from historical novelist Margaret George, is an example of historical fiction at its finest.   Weighty and packed with historical detail, Elizabeth I is a novel to savour.  

While many novels featuring Elizabeth I focus on the early and middle years of her life and reign, with particular emphasis on Elizabeth's love life, Margaret George chose a different track.   Her focus instead is on the later years of Elizabeth's reign, starting in 1588, at the time of the Spanish Armada.  I found this choice refreshing, as the novel's focus is on the people and events that defined the later years of Elizabeth's reign, events such as the Spanish Armada, the Essex Rebellion and the defeats and victories in Ireland, rather than concentrating on Elizabeth's love life.  

The novel alternates between the voices of Elizabeth herself, and her cousin Lettice Knollys, who was banished from court for marrying Robert Dudley.   The chapters featuring Lettice serve to provide the reader with a different perspective on the actions and motivations of the monarch.    In addition to the two principal characters, Elizabeth and Lettice, the novel is filled with characters right from the pages of history, including the Earl of Essex, William and Robert Cecil, Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and William Shakespeare.

Although many authors of historical fiction have attempted to bring England's Virgin Queen to life, few have managed to clearly convey why Elizabeth is considered to be England's greatest monarch.   George, however, has accomplished this and more.   Not only has she successfully conveyed the keen intellect and political astuteness of Elizabeth, but she has also captured the Queen's compassion and love for her subjects. 

My qualm, albeit a small one, is that the alternating narrations between Elizabeth and Lettice is, at times, unnecessarily repetitive.   While this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel, its frequency made it noticeable. 

I highly recommend this novel to all fans of historical fiction.