Elizabeth I

Written by Margaret George
Review by Jasmina Svenne

How can an historical novelist up the ante on the life of Elizabeth I when so much has been written about her and so little is unknown? Margaret George has found the answer is this stunning tour de force doorstop of a presentation.

The first few pages introduce us to an aging queen facing the daunting task of defeating the Spanish Armada. Close to her side are the stalwarts: Walsingham, Cecil, Drake, Raleigh. Narrated throughout in the first person, Elizabeth is mature, confident on the outside, ever-questioning on the inside. Is she anywhere near as regal as her father, Henry VIII? Do her beloved people recognize that she has become the bride of England, having given up the joys of true love, marriage, motherhood?

As Elizabeth faces her uncertain future in the final 25 years of her reign, enemies emerge – known and unknown. Her cousin and erstwhile enemy (who “stole” the love of Robert Dudley), Lettice Knollys, trades chapters with Elizabeth, and their intensely personal stories criss-cross time and again over those years. Certainly, the most gripping and transcendent of those stories is about Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, Lettice’s son, beautiful and arrogant, his own worst enemy after Elizabeth, who truly loves him, gives him one opportunity after another to prove himself worthy.

Not simply content to give us the historical backdrop of Elizabeth’s age through her relationships, her victories and her failures, George gives us far more – Will Shakespeare as a living, breathing character as he morphs into the greatest playwright perhaps of all time; Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen, who is more like Elizabeth than even she cares to admit; Francis Bacon, a brilliant legal mind. The pages fly by, immersing us in lives that, even today, have us awestruck. By far, the best book I have read in a long time.