I don’t think I really need to write a plot summary of this book, do I? Elizabeth I: A Novel is exactly as the title suggests – a novel about Elizabeth I. Not just about Elizabeth, of course. Although the story is narrated by the queen herself, all the important historical figures of the period are here – from sailors and explorers (Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh), to politicians and advisers (Francis Walsingham, Robert Cecil), and poets and playwrights (Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare). And if this all seems very male-dominated, there’s also another very important female character, Lettice Knollys, who shares the narration with Elizabeth.
Lettice Knollys was Elizabeth’s cousin, but at the time when this novel begins the two haven’t spoken for many years following Lettice’s marriage to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a man with whom Elizabeth was once thought to have been romantically involved. Lettice has been banished from court and her hopes of being allowed to return rest on her son, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex – but when he becomes the centre of a rebellion against the queen, it seems Lettice’s hopes could be destroyed. Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex and how she deals with his rebellion form a big part of the story.
When I saw the size of this novel (nearly 700 pages) I expected it to cover the whole of Elizabeth’s life. It doesn’t. It starts towards the end of her reign, just before the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and takes us through only the last few years of her life (Elizabeth died in 1603). You can probably imagine, then, how in-depth and detailed the book is to take so many pages to cover such a short period of Elizabeth’s reign. The only problem with this is that things quickly start to become repetitive. The changing of the seasons every year is described in minute detail every time – a cold winter, a hot summer, a bad harvest…over and over again. I couldn’t help thinking that some editing would have improved things and made the book a more gripping read. As it was, it felt far too long and I started to get bored towards the end (and I don’t usually have a problem with long books).
Apart from this, Elizabeth I wasn’t a bad book and I could tell that a huge amount of research must have gone into it. Although I read lots of historical fiction, I haven’t actually read many books about Elizabeth so there was enough new material here to leave me with the feeling that I had really learned a lot. I should also point out that this is definitely not a romance or a bodice ripper – the focus is on Elizabeth herself, as a strong, intelligent, competent woman facing challenges both within her own kingdom and from overseas, including poverty, famine and the constant threat of attack from Spain. One aspect of Elizabeth’s life that I thought Margaret George portrayed very convincingly was the way she felt as she tried to come to terms with growing older and watching her most trusted friends and advisers dying one by one of old age.
I thought the choice of Lettice as the second viewpoint character was a good one. Not only do her chapters of the book give us a chance to see what’s going on away from Elizabeth’s court, but Lettice also offers a very different outlook on life. The two women have such different priorities and motivations – while Elizabeth considers herself ‘married to England’ and is always thinking of what is best for the country, the most important thing to Lettice is her family, particularly her son, the Earl of Essex. While there is not a lot of distinction between the narrative voices of the two women and without the chapter headings it might even have been difficult to tell who was narrating at times, I found Lettice an easier character to understand than Elizabeth – though I’m not sure if I can really say that I ‘liked’ either of them.
The other characters in the book felt less developed, maybe because we only saw them through the eyes of Elizabeth and Lettice, and despite having such an interesting collection of historical characters to work with, George never really succeeded in bringing them to life for me. The book isn’t badly written – quite the opposite, in fact – I just found it a bit dry and lacking any special magic. This is the first Margaret George book I’ve read, though, and the few problems I’ve mentioned here haven’t stopped me wanting to try her others!