I suppose it was only a matter of time before pseudo-biographer and talented historical fiction author Margaret George took on the enormous task of Elizabeth I. She’s a historical figure so exhaustively portrayed in literature and film yet so little truly understood (which is, perhaps, her appeal). I’ve avoided novels about Elizabeth since I read Jean Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm when I was in high school and the last biopic I saw was the one starring Helen Mirren (which I enjoyed). Because of all the tropes and cliches and crap people believe about her, it’s much more interesting to me to read history and historical debate to hear the story. However, since I’ve read George before without disgust, I though this one was worth a shot.
Just like her novel about Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I was interesting and enjoyable, but not extraordinary and sometimes bordering on too sentimental. Elizabeth I was devilishly interesting because of her complicated personality and her all-too-obvious human weaknesses; coupled with her larger-than-life persona, it’s no wonder flocks of people in the past five hundred years have been enchanted with her. George dulls her down, to the extreme. The first problem is with the period she chose. Gloriana is older, and all the important and interesting stuff is over. The Armada is defeated, Leicester is dead, Elizabeth absolutely detests his widow Lettice, Essex isn’t es-sexy (which in my mind, he always was, probably because of Hugh Dancy’s swoon-inducing portrayal in the aforementioned Mirren biopic), and Shakespeare figures in such a way that borders on literary blasphemy (I’m Catholic: I know what I’m talking about).
So, in short, not a great read. The writing is sort of juvenile, and like the Helen novel, I finished reading with no more real insight into the psychology and personality of Elizabeth I, which is what good historical fiction should do. It’s deemed problematic by some, but good historical fiction should make the reader believe that this version, if not true, is at least believable. George fails at that, sadly. Much better is Jean Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm. I haven’t touched it since I was fourteen but I still remember the striking characterization of Elizabeth and how her narration perfectly explicated her complex personality. The narrator-Elizabeth would split her personality into Rational and Emotional, and she knew herself so well that I was convinced I knew the real Elizabeth. That’s what good historical fiction ought to be capable of. The novel also canvasses the whole of Elizabeth’s life accurately, succinctly, and without rush: no mean feat. Really, I should read that book again. #TeamPlaidy
The one scene I loved most in the novel was ridiculous and purely sentimental; however, I loved it because I am a fan of Anne Boleyn (not “The Tudors” kind, although I do love Natalie Dormer for her historical knowledge and savvy portrayal in the second season). The scene is when Elizabeth visits Hever Castle and becomes very emotional at the place where her mother was born and grew up. Having visited Hever Castle, I can imagine Elizabeth wanting to go there to be close to Anne, even if she never got the chance (she probably couldn’t show emotional support for her mother during her lifetime; evidence shows E. was not chatty about her mother, though a ring she had cast features a hidden portrait of Anne inside, showing how much Elizabeth must have cherished the memory of her mother).
So, that’s it. One scene in this novel had me cheering, but I think this novel has proven my skepticism toward faux biographies about behemoth historical figures. Next: The Memoirs of Cleopatra!