From the threat of the First Armada to the queen’s deathbed, this novel sweeps through the reign of Elizabeth and in particular her difficult relationships with her cousin Lettice Knollys and Lettice’s son Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
I’m sure plenty of readers will disagree with me, but it took me a while to get into this novel. My main problem was that I never succumbed to Essex’s supposed charm, and therefore it was inexplicable to me why an intelligent woman like Elizabeth would indulge such a spoilt brat. Similarly Lettice struck me at first as rather shallow, obsessed with advancing her family’s fortunes and sex (not necessarily in that order). She seemed an unworthy rival to Elizabeth. However, as Lettice matured and Essex became more unhinged, I got sucked in.
I can’t help feeling the three short opening chapters are wasted space, dealing with characters with no further role in the book. Moreover, all the relevant information – Papal Bulls, beacons, Mass being said secretly in the Tower – gets mentioned later. A prologue dramatising the cause of Elizabeth and Lettice’s enmity – the tug-of-love over Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – would have had more impact than the rather half-hearted reminiscences that appear later on. It might also have prevented Elizabeth from looking petty for holding a grudge for so many decades.
Margaret George has obviously done her research. In fact, she would have done well to stick even more closely to documented fact, since the only scenes I found unconvincing were the ones she admits in the afterword are wholly fictitious.