This is a well-balanced book: It has two of everything.
I had two responses to the sight of it: 1) Who needs another book about Elizabeth Tudor? And 2) If it’s by Margaret George, it’s probably worth reading. George, best known for her massive novels about Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII and the even bigger “Memoirs of Cleopatra,” is a major player on the stage of historical fiction.
Any novelist who deals with Elizabeth I has two problems: a surfeit of detail and a paucity of motive. It’s reasonably easy to find out about the trivia of daily life and to trace the actions of important people; much less easy to figure out why anyone did what they did.
Elizabeth herself left little material that would tell us what lay behind her actions. George made two clever decisions in handling this dilemma: telling the story from two viewpoints — those of Elizabeth and her look-alike younger cousin, Lettice Knollys; and beginning the story not during the perilous years before Elizabeth’s accession but in her late middle age.
Elizabeth at the age of 54 is secure on her throne, wedded to her subjects, solid in the life she’s constructed for herself. But the sands of that life are shifting. Determined to reclaim England for the pope, Spain is mounting a monstrous Armada. And Elizabeth’s trusted advisers, who have been with her from her youth, are dying around her.
Any good novel has an external plot and an internal one. While the long-running battle of money, arms and wits between Elizabeth and Philip of Spain provides the main thrust of the external plot, her troubled relationship with the Earl of Essex supplies the internal strand. Both conflicts are beautifully portrayed as the clash of heroically flawed people.
Another doubling lies in the skillful handling of Elizabeth’s affairs of the heart — and only the heart. Unlike many other novelists, George has decided that, yes, Elizabeth really was a lifelong virgin.
In her early years, Elizabeth was deeply attracted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but was prevented from marrying him. Leicester dies near the beginning of this book, closing a chapter of the queen’s life. Another opens with the rise of Leicester’s stepson (and Lettice’s son), Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Thirty years younger than the queen, Essex becomes a favorite, but a dangerous favorite, bent on personal ambition. Elizabeth and Lettice provide fascinating counterpoint views throughout, but especially with regard to Essex.
Like all of George’s novels, this one has great depth and detail and provides fresh insight even on familiar historical incidents. Her vision of Elizabeth is a convincing one, of a strong woman of deep principle, fighting valiantly against hot flashes, a failing memory and other ravages of age. She’s thoroughly human, and on occasion her caprice and indecision make you want to shake her. George turns this trait to double advantage, too, showing us a woman who can’t make up her mind, not only about her successor (where she has good reason for delay), but about almost everything. She changes her mind repeatedly; sends out armies and navies, then summons them back; removes commanders and replaces them; imprisons people out of pique, then lets them out again when she misses their company.
At the same time, what seems like personal indecision can also be seen as political moderation. This trait, so in contrast to Philip’s single-minded religious zealotry, allows her to guide her precarious kingdom through the constant threat of religious war.
This inconstancy costs her dearly in her relations with Essex, though. Out of affection for him, she puts him in charge of the army sent to subdue the Irish: an unmitigated disaster. Later, as his mental instability and outrageous behavior increase, she does little but gripe about him to her ladies until his rising popular support leads to outright treason and forces her to execute him.
The book does suffer slightly from two of the bugaboos of historical fiction: a syndrome called “I’ve done my research and now you’re going to pay”; and the “As you know, Bob . . . ” syndrome (e.g., “I will appoint the Norrises, Sir Henry the father and his son Sir John, alias ‘Black Jack’ ”). But these distractions quickly disappear after the first few chapters.
The Elizabeth of this book is frequently and realistically annoying, but appealingly vulnerable in her personal solitude, and admirable in her dedication to her destiny. The world probably doesn’t need another book about Elizabeth, but this one is well worth reading.
Gabaldon is a writer of historical fiction, including “Outlander” and “The Exile.”
By Margaret George.
Viking. 671 pp. $30.