I felt a close kinship with many of those who surrounded Elizabeth during her long reign. Like those whose lives were held in check by her capricious iron will, who waited long years for overdue titles and positions at court, who tried again and again to breach her borders, I, too, asked myself, “Will this woman never die?!” And while I don’t regret reading Margaret George’s tome Elizabeth I, I was overjoyed to set it aside, happy that Elizabeth had crossed over, and I could get on with my life. (Now lest I sound too harsh in my reaction to Elizabeth I, the author covered only the last thirty years of her life, from her early 50’s to her death in 1603.)
The novel is plodding; there’s no other word for it. Chapters crawled by at the pace of an Elizabethan Progress–George packed dozens of wagons filled with Elizabeth’s days, traveled slowly over English countryside, only to unpack it all and begin over again. And I have to say I learned much about life in the Queen’s private chambers and how life at court unfolded. (I also think contemporary politicians–scandals and all–can’t hold a candle to the deals, bribery, and subterfuge of Elizabeth’s court.) But George couldn’t roll a carriage down the street without pointing out, house-by-house who lived where and what their relationship with the Queen had been, and the detail, at times, was burdensome.
Interwoven with Elizabeth’s story were chapters narrated by Lettice Knollys nee Devereaux nee Dudley, Elizabeth‘s cousin, long banished from court, and also the wife of Elizabeth’s (perhaps) true love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Lettice was as controlling and conniving as Elizabeth–but without the power and status–and I assume that was the real reason behind the women’s long feud. Interesting was George’s speculation that William Shakespeare was Lady Devereaux’s lover for a time. I loved the few behind-the-scenes glimpses we get of Shakespeare, his “new” plays as they were performed, and London’s reaction.
A definite must-read for Anglophiles and a great companion to the recent films about Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth and Elizabeth: the Golden Age. Just give yourself plenty of time.
Next up: In the time it took me to finish Elizabeth and write this post (3 days), I’m already plowing through the Pulitzer Prize winner by Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. (And reading printed hard copies again has brought my reading back into focus.) Next, next up is Blind Sight by Meg Howrey. I think I heard a review of it on NPR.