Elizabeth I, A Novel

Elizabeth I: A Novel, by Margaret George. Viking, NY.  April 5, 2011. 978-0-670-02253-3. 670pp.

I’m a historical fiction junkie, particularly of the 16 century & before, and this book more than met my needs. In it the reader meets Elizabeth in the 30th year of her reign–not the girl raised away from court, or the always-suspect sister of Queen Mary to whom conspirators drew, or the brilliant young queen playing foreign royal suitors against each other, but a woman 58 years old and facing the most dire situation she’d yet encountered, the invasion of the Spanish Armada. (The first, that is, attempt; there were 3 altogether.) At 58, many of her political crises are behind her: for instance, “the Scots queen” (as Elizabeth calls her) is long dead; however, in this last decade of her life, we encounter a woman who must endure the same heartbreak as any other human,  in the growing frailty of her body, and as she loses her loved ones to death: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, shortly after the defeat of the Armada; his vain and feckless son, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, at her own command; William Cecil, Lord Burghley; the deaths of her beloved lady companions, Catherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham, and especially that of her cousin Catherine, Lady Knollys, dealt the Queen deep emotional blows from which she would not recover. This novel presents a very human Elizabeth, and the first-person narrative allows the reader to see from Elizabeth’s perspective (as presented by the author) and to understand, finally, that many times Elizabeth herself reacted from her heart and gut and not her reason.

The other narrative voice in this novel is that of Lettice Knollys*, Elizabeth’s cousin, and the hated wife of Elizabeth’s dear Robert Dudley. Lettice and Robert were the parents of Robert Devereaux, and it is his physical resemblance to Dudley that paid for many of Essex’ misdeeds. I would that I were more interested in Lettice’s side of the story, but the book belongs to Elizabeth, and she was my focus in the reading.

Margaret George does a marvelous job: her research is impeccable and her writing engaging.  I particularly enjoyed learning some of the fascinating if lesser-known landmarks of Elizabeth’s rule– such as how John Harrington, one of the Queen’s many godchildren, invented the flush toilet, and also the rather amusing attitudes of those using it. I especially enjoyed the too-few appearances of Dr John Dee and reading of his services to the Queen.

The author envisions a dying Elizabeth’s musings: “Lying in bed, I wondered what I had left undone. Nothing that others could not finish. There was Ireland, but only the surrender treaty, with its terms, remained to be signed. The succession. It was obvious that James was  an heir…  and the kingdom went on. …. Religion. In spite of predictions, the Catholics had survived. Not everyone had been won to my sensible middle way, to the Church of England. The Puritans found it still too popish… Well. One cannot satisfy everyone…. And the question others would ask long after I was gone: Was I wrong not to marry? Wrong politically, that is? And I could answer that one resoundingly: No, I was not wrong. As the Virgin Queen, I had united my people far more than I could have done with any consort. They knew they had my undivided loyalty. …. All the doubts–of not having loved enough, not having given enough, not to my country but to one person, one beloved person who might have reigned with me as my consort. Those doubts–it was time to let them go now. What was done was done.”

This is a thoroughly satisfying read!

*I regret that I have given Lettice short shrift in this review. The psychic interplay between Elizabeth and Lettice is a fascinating psychological study in the activity of Jung’s Shadow, repressed. I simply am always too taken with the person of Elizabeth to give much heed to the other voice of the novel.

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