For those of you who may be new here, I made a New Year’s resolution to read at least one book a week every week of the year. So far, so good. In fact, I’m dominating New Year’s resolutions right now.
Last week, I read Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George. Before I dive into the book review, I have a confession to make- I have always hated historical fiction. Hated it. It’s almost never historically accurate and as someone who studied history, I take that as an offense against me personally. I mean, how difficult is it to check your facts? Ok. So you know that about me now. And now that you know that about me, you can understand why I was a little hesitant about this book. I mean, I concentrated especially on Tudor-Stuart England while in school and so this had the potential of being an unmitigated diaster of a read. However, on the back cover, one of my favorite writer-historians on Tudor England, Alison Weir endorsed this book. Could it be? An historically accurate novel about Elizabeth?
It was! It was an historically accurate novel about Queen Elizabeth I!!! Huzzah! In fact, not only was is historically accurate, it was BRILLIANT! (You should expect a lot of exclamation points in this post….) Even though I knew what was to come from an historical point of view, this book was so compelling, it almost felt as if I didn’t know what was to happen next. George created a masterful and inspired portrait of Elizabeth I. I mean, compelling doesn’t even begin to describe it. I devoured this book and it was no short read at 688 pages, but I couldn’t put it down. It was just brilliantly written.
One of the things I liked best about this novel was the voice George gave to Lettice Knollys, the much maligned wife of three men, one of whom was Robert Dudley The Earl of Leicester, and cousin to Elizabeth I herself although the two women were at odds most of their lives. There has been much said throughout history of Lettice, most of it petty gossip and rumor. During her lifetime she was viewed as shrewd, conniving, slutty, and potentially lethal (rumor was her weapon of choice was poison, something her husband was also frequently accused of). No one can say how much of this is true although I think it’s safe to say Lettice was certainly a schemer and she definitely enjoyed the late-night company of many a man. But outside of these things, Lettice hasn’t gotten much historical notice. She is mentioned in many a biography but has none of her own. In fact, a biography of Lettice would be most interesting as she was at the heart of so many pivotal moment in Elizabeth I reign. Reading from her perspective didn’t exactly elicit too much sympathy from me, but it was interesting to think about how she might have viewed what was happening at court and in England from a distance as she herself was banned from court. And her son, the Earl of Essex was central in the plot to overthrow Elizabeth I in 1601. Lettice certainly had an important and crucial viewpoint and I’m thrilled George thought to explore it, especially when few others have.
Of course, this is a novel and so license had to be taken with dialogue, but as we can’t know what exactly was said by Elizabeth I or anyone of her court, this is too be expected. And though the dialogue is fictional, I had no trouble in imagining it could very well be something similar to what was actually said. George was diligent in her research for this novel and that shows through in the dialogue. One fictional scene I found particularly interesting was the one in which, while on progress, Elizabeth I meets a servant while staying with Sir Anthony Browne. She talks with and dances with that servant and his name was Guy Fawkes. The very same Guy Fawkes who lives in infamy in England for trying to blow up Parliament and King James I with it in 1605 and is burned in effigy on the 5th of November every year in the UK (it is also known as Bonfire Night). What I found remarkable about this was the fact that it could have happened. We have no proof that it did, but Guy Fawkes did indeed serve Sir Anthony Browne while Elizabeth I stayed there while on progress. It was absolutely plausible. This is what historical fiction should be about, fictional events that could have nonetheless plausibly occurred.
A truly marvelous read! And now that I know I can trust George with historical accuracy, I can’t wait to read some of her other novels about historical figures including Helen of Troy and Mary Queen of Scots. I have to say it again- Huzzah!!!!
What have you been reading?