The life of Queen Elizabeth Tudor has become a popular subject for writers, as she's a heroine possessing unique strengths, undeniably important in world events. Elizabeth remains a modern idol who deserves to be honored and examined.
Margaret George's account gives an up-close-and-personal view of Elizabeth's inner life and private circle: at court, in parliament, and as commander-in-chief of the world's greatest empire. She backs the novel with painstaking research and presents Elizabeth's reign from differing points of view: that of Elizabeth herself --- a commanding and convincing perspective on its own --- alternating with a much-altered view of one of her subjects, her first cousin, Lettice. Amorous and adulterous, Lettice is a noblewoman who is also Elizabeth's look-alike, engaged in a foolish lovesick competition between herself and the queen. In claiming the affections of Robert Dudley, Lettice has made herself an enemy to the most powerful woman in England.
Elizabeth's story begins shortly after Lettice makes her move, and Dudley seals his future in marrying the queen's cousin in secret, all while proclaiming his love for Elizabeth but knowing she's a woman he can never have. The Queen hasn't forgotten his betrayal, though has forgiven Dudley while condemning her cousin. We all know the story of the virgin ruler who wished to be a lover but refused to give up primary rule. Thus the book begins at a natural point, with Elizabeth's life decided, Mary of Scots executed, and the new Queen refusing foreign suitors and proclaiming herself "married to England." Elizabeth's proclamations should not imply that love and desire have deserted her; she simply refuses to subjugate her people. The once-frightened girl she was has held onto her crown and is as secure as she ever will be. But she has enemies at home and abroad: spies, subjects and monarchs who intend to dethrone her.
With the aid of trusted advisors such as Francis Walsingham and Baron William Burghley, Elizabeth legitimizes her status only to face decades of war, even while personally despising conflict. King Phillip remains determined to dethrone her and to claim England as a Catholic realm, receiving the full support of Pope Sixtus on behalf of Catholic Spain. The greatest battle in English history will be fought and won because of Elizabeth's strategizing and relying on her judgment, and the Queen's wisdom proves her to be the penultimate military commander. It seems ironic that the battle and war will be what earns Elizabeth loyalty as, thus far, the English have only been relieved to be freed of the sovereignty of tyrants.
Many challenges come that bring Elizabeth the undying respect of her people. She plays a personal role in securing England's greatest victory in history, riding out --- sword in hand, fully armored on a white horse --- to show her dedication to supporting her troops. England's naval engagement with the Spanish armada is considered the greatest military victory England ever faced. But there are others to come while England's armies are still outnumbered by Spain's. Elizabeth's sentimental gestures become memories people will not forget, events that help to save her crown in future years.
Margaret George's history spans the Queen's entire adult lifetime, beginning shortly after she first takes the throne and covering all the ensuing years until her death, through many wars and rebellions. All of the most famous and well-known characters within films and other novels play parts here too, but there are others who I had never heard of before.
One interesting figure is Grace O'Malley --- an Irish pirate known as "The Sea Queen of Connaught" --- an aging woman near to Elizabeth's own advancing age who becomes clan commander in her Irish homeland during the long campaign between English and Irish troops. Letitia is another unfamiliar character who makes a very interesting figure in this story, offering some surprising and previously unheard perspectives about Elizabeth both as a queen and as a person, through the eyes of a common subject. By the end, Letitia's point of view becomes as illuminating as Elizabeth's. Overall, ELIZABETH I is historical fiction I'm sure you will not want to miss, especially for anyone who enjoys European history and can appreciate a wonderful heroine.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on April 25, 2011