Book feature: ELIZABETH I

Over the years, Margaret George has delighted her fans by tackling such diverse subjects as Henry VIII, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Helen of Troy and Mary Magdalene — and now, in her latest historical novel, she peers into the heart and life of the legendary Elizabeth Tudor (1533–1603).

Unlike many other works on the life of the Virgin Queen, George begins Elizabeth I not during her turbulent, often precarious early years as the daughter of Henry VIII and the doomed Anne Boleyn, or even at the start of her reign. Instead the novel opens toward the end of it when Elizabeth, while still at the height of her powers, also has to deal with some of the more difficult aspects of aging, including her own physical decline and the loss of her closest confidents and advisors as they too began to age.

With her usual skill, George probes the enigmas of a queen who declared herself a virgin, yet encouraged many suitors; a warrior queen who took on the Spanish Armada but hated war; the penny pincher who insisted on always being extravagantly attired.

Among the cast of characters are the larger-than life historical figures of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dudley, Raleigh, and Drake. What drives the story, however, is the ongoing conflict between Elizabeth and her look-alike, calculating cousin, Lettice Knollys, who is Elizabeth’s rival for the love of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Lettice is also mother to the Earl of Essex, who ends up challenging Elizabeth’s throne. The fierce rivalry between these two determined and intelligent women ends up involving nearly everyone close to the crown.

I was particularly curious to see how George would handle the matter of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. How would the character Elizabeth deal with the fact that her own mother had been found guilty of treason and, subsequently, beheaded? Would she be driven to prove her innocence, or conversely, provide justification for her father’s actions? George’s portrayal of the queen stays true to the historical accounts: apparently, throughout her life, Elizabeth did not comment on her mother’s guilt or innocence, and preferred to simply let it be.

Elizabeth I gives a memorable glimpse of a shrewd queen who nonetheless ruled as much from the heart as from the head. And unlike many contemporary depictions of the Virgin Queen, George’s Elizabeth is literally a virgin — who considers herself very much married to her people and her country.

Watch the book trailer: