Elizabeth I by Margaret George
22nd Jun 2011
In a wise move, she chooses not to tell Elizabeth’s entire life story but focuses instead on the last fifteen years of her reign, pitching dramatically straight into the action with the first sighting of the Armada in 1588.
The book is recounted primarily as first person narration from Elizabeth herself and we’re rapidly introduced to the various personalities of the court – Lord Burghley, Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth’s long-time favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester among them – as they mobilise to repel the threat.
As the country returns to normality after the defeat of the Spanish, the temporary unity of the nobility subsides to be replaced with frantic jockeying for favour and the gradual establishment of the dashing young Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, as the Queen’s new favourite.
The bulk of the rest of the book is taken up with the complex, shifting relationship between Elizabeth and Essex and its dramatic resolution though pretty much every famous face from the period gets a look-in at some point, from Francis Drake to Shakespeare via John Dee and Grace O’Malley.
Despite covering less than a quarter of Elizabeth’s life, the book weighs in at just under seven hundred pages because George has taken a fairly omnivorous approach to her clearly extensive research. It seems at times that she’s determined every single fact she’s uncovered must have its day.
This weighs particularly heavily on the opening of the book as characters have a tendency to stand around having long expository conversations in which they tell each other facts about recent history.
The indiscriminate dollops of detail about Tudor life which fill up page after page reflect a perpetual tension in historical fiction between the competing demands of verisimilitude and story-telling.
George plants her flag firmly in history’s camp and is scrupulous in reflecting documentary evidence wherever possible. Unfortunately this is often to the detriment of the narrative: partly because cleaving more closely to the rhythm of life than of drama means that the book has a tendency to feel rambling, repetitive and unstructured.
The relative shapelessness of the material is reflected in the choice of narrative voices; in order to present the story of Elizabeth and Essex, George requires another pair of eyes and settles on Lettice, the much-married mother of Essex who anxiously follows her son’s battle for prominence both with maternal indulgence and with an eye to restoring her own lost eminence.
Alternating sections of the books are related by Elizabeth and Lettice but this always feels like an arbitrary narrative necessity rather than an aesthetically justifiable choice.
The lack of a compelling dissonance between the two narrators shows up another the book’s weaknesses: George is not much of a stylist and her prose is sturdy and propulsive but rather flavourless.
This is thrown into especially sharp relief as most of the letters in the book are presented in their original texts and the difference between the genuine voices of Tudor England and the modern tone of the novel is very jarring.
These problems are all the more frustrating because the novel comes most vividly to life when George allows herself a little more fictional slack. The gradual depletion of Elizabeth’s retinue as her oldest and most trusted friends and advisors die off, and her increasing sense of isolation in the realm over which she holds such powerful sway, is powerfully and movingly conveyed and the Earl of Essex himself is a memorable creation as his charm and self-importance gradually turn into over-bearing arrogance and delusion.
An invented scene where Elizabeth breaks away from her progress to make an impromptu visit to a rural market has a warmth which the interminable, though no doubt accurate, relation of proceedings in court and listings of the various noblemen in attendance ca’t match.
There are these incidental pleasures to be had throughout the novel, and the final section detailing the end of Essex’s machinations develops a satisfying head of steam, which makes it all the more frustrating that they are buried within an over-long and rather meat-and-potatoes plod through the end of the sixteenth century.
A bit more boldness in the editing and shaping of the material, and more fictional imagination even at the expense of historical precision, could have made all the difference; a story this interesting deserves a better telling.
Published in April by Viking, you can buy it in hardback for £12.50.
Other recommended reading: For an interesting general biography of Elizabeth with no fictional apparatus around it, try Elizabeth, The Queen by Alison Weir. For a more boldly imaginative and literary historical novel based in the same period, it’s hard to beat the brilliant A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess.