C.W.'s Reviews > Elizabeth I: The Novel

Elizabeth I by Margaret George
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May 31, 11

Read in April, 2011

Margaret George has cemented her reputation as a grand dame of historical fiction, creating epic novels about history's most legendary characters, from Henry VIII to Mary of Scotland to Helen of Troy. In her latest novel, ELIZABETH I, she tackles perhaps the most legendary and elusive figure of all - the Virgin Queen herself.

Elizabeth Tudor is famous as much for what she said and did as for what she did not. She remains so fascinating precisely because we know so little about her personally, even as her reign is replete with some of English history’s most well-publicized events. She was a study in contrasts, and Ms George uses these contradictions to full advantage in her meticulously researched portrayal of an aging Elizabeth and her world.

Beginning with the first Armada (there were several, as the novel points out) and spanning the last fifteen years of Elizabeth's eventful life, the queen comes across as a steely and astute observer of her own strengths and foibles, as well as those around her, even as she's drawn in the wake of her beloved Leicester's death into the magnetic, ultimately tragic thrall of handsome, unstable Essex. Threaded throughout the narrative - in which, of course, the queen dominates - are those who knew her, such as Leicester's widow and the mother of Essex, the irrepressible Lettice Knollys. Lettice has battled against Elizabeth and lost; despite physical commonalties, there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely alike in these two disparate women. Yet as both become pawns of Essex’s erratic behavior, parallels begin to emerge, and it is the weaving of these which bring a touching end to the book. For while Elizabeth is the ballast of the story, her keen common sense, majestic prerogative, and deep personal sacrifices permeating the very fabric of her being, Lettice is the sail that draws their shared story onto its shoals— fraught with emotion, captive of her flagrant past, Lettice does not recognize what looms before her until it is too late.

Other memorable characters such as Elizabeth’s trusted Lord Burghley and his canny son, Robert; her intimate ladies; and a surprising appearance by the Bard himself, as well as myriad of courtiers who made Elizabeth's palaces glitter, round out this heady look at Gloriana and the flesh-and-blood woman underneath her immortal façade.
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