Monday, October 3, 2011

Tudor Treasure

44. Elizabeth I by Margaret George

Like her Autobiography of Henry VIII, Margaret George's Elizabeth I is a foundational text in Tudor fiction. Every moment of this book was an absolute pleasure to me, and I have devoted many hours to reading about Elizabeth Tudor and Elizabethan England, both fiction and non-fiction. George writes with the authority and thorough consideration of the queen herself, and brings to life arresting portraits of many Elizabethan figures, particularly the underrepresented (in Tudor fiction and biography) Letitia Knollys and the ubiquitous William Shakespeare, but I also reveled in her portrayals of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, William and Robert Cecil, Edmund Spenser, and lesser known figures like Admiral Charles Howard and his wife Catherine, nee Carey.

As soon as I saw that George was coming out with this book (it came out in May), I wishlisted it on Amazon. Then, I received it as a graduation gift from my aunt! I had been saving it to read for an auspicious time, when I found out that Margaret George was going to be at the National Book Festival. I started reading right away and was a couple hundred pages in when I met George, got my book signed, AND attended her panel and got to ask her a couple questions during the Q&A sessions. I've realized I turn into a babbling fangirl at these events, but I think I managed to convey my appreciation, especially for the vast amount of research that George does and incorporates so masterfully into her novels. One of my questions was about her interpretation of Elizabeth's character. George's Elizabeth seems more logical, calm, and authoritative than many Elizabeths I've seen in the works of Philippa Gregory, Rosalind Miles, Robin Maxwell and others. I asked her if this is her view of Elizabeth's essential character or a character that she developed when she grew older, as George's book covers the last 15 years of her life, while the other books tend to focus on her younger years. George's answer was that she sees Elizabeth as always having been very self-collected, self-aware, and that she doesn't think she ever really lost control. She believes that "semper eadem" (always the same in Latin) was a motto that fit Elizabeth well, despite Elizabeth's famous changing of her mind and notorious fits, these, she seems to think, were calculated acts. This interpretation interests me, as this is the type of Elizabeth I would like to believe in. I don't like, or find realistic, these uber-romantic portraits of her that some people have. No doubt she had emotional needs like most people, but she clearly ruled with her head, not her heart.

The book is told from the points of view of Elizabeth and her estranged cousin Laetitia, or Lettice. The two never meet throughout the book, except for one occasion, which I suspect is a narrative invention of George's, but I would really like to know for sure. If my assumption is correct, then the "confrontation" scene is part of what I've observed to be a trope of literature about Elizabeth that pits her against another woman, typically Mary, Queen of Scots, but in Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth, it is Amy Dudley, who actually is a stand-in for Lettice, as Scott plays with dates and situations. Dudley was Leicester's first wife, whom he married openly during the reign of Edward VI, but when she died young under suspicious circumstances, he later had an affair with and then secretly married Lettice without Elizabeth's knowledge. It was this marriage that, when discovered, drew Elizabeth's infamous ire and permanent banishment for Lettice.

The book opens with the imminent arrival of the 1588 Spanish Armada, but actually numerous Armadas threaten England throughout the book, only to be vanquished by weather and bad luck. These are all historically accurate, just little commented upon. The other perpetual threat throughout the novel is the Earl of Essex, son to Lettice, stepson to Elizabeth's beloved Leicester (whose exit is soon after the first Armada), and courtier and rumored lover to Elizabeth. George (and rightly so, I believe) makes little of the supposed love affair, except for one scene that she explains as pure invention, although it provides great insight into Elizabeth's character. George's answer to the virginity question, one she answered both in her panel and in the book, is that Elizabeth did indeed remain a virgin, for practical reasons. Instead, George shows Essex in a truly historical light; he was a petulant spoiled boy filled with dreams of military glory, whose appeal and bids to the populace made him a threat. His own deluded beliefs about his deserts at Elizabeth's hands and then depression at her rejection of him seemed to have even made him a bit deranged in the end. George carefully builds up Essex's interactions with Elizabeth, his long store of non-achievements, and his activities that grow ever more seditious and treasonous. In the book, he is compared to Mary, Queen of Scots in the level of threat he draws, because he is young, handsome and strong and actively courts common favor. Elizabeth could not have him playing her own game against her. I have studied some of the ballads surrounding Essex at the time and these alone make me understand why he was considered so dangerous.

A delightful aspect of this novel is George's obvious rapport with Shakespeare's works and how this leads her to interpret his character as well. Several of Shakespeare's plays feature in the novel; at court, in the theatre, and in dialogue between the characters. In an unlikely but charming twist, she makes Lettice Knollys Shakespeare's Dark Lady (especially unlikely, I think, due to Lettice's red hair, and also, would she stoop so low?) and the Earl of Southampton the Golden Boy of the sonnets. While the latter is more likely, she does in this way sidestep the possibility of Shakespeare's bisexuality and instead keeps his relationship to Southampton as a patron and as a fellow lover of Lettice. Even when not reciting from his plays, George's Shakespeare uses the language one imagines he would, if he talked in a slightly more modern vernacular. I hope she takes him on as her next subject, I would be fascinated to see what she could do with Shakespeare's life.

George concentrates on important aspects of Elizabeth's life that few of her other fictional historians seem to spend much time on. For example, she focuses on the relationship between Elizabeth and her favorite ladies-in-waiting, especially her cousin Catherine Howard (Carey), and Marjorie Norris. Other women rarely figure in tales about Elizabeth, except as adversaries. Yet, Elizabeth was constantly surrounded by women in her private chambers, it's amazing that no one else has found them important enough to more than mention. George places more emphasis on Elizabeth's adventurers, like Drake and Raleigh and their voyages. All of her privateers, not just the best-known, Drake, but John Hawkins, Martin Frobisher, Sir Richard Grenville etc., get at least a mention here. Admittedly, these men get a lot of attention in non-fiction, like The Pirate Queen by Susan Ronald, that I've also been dipping into lately, but in fiction it's all about the Virgin Queen's alleged lovers. Burghley, Cecil, and Walsingham are not particularly original here either, but they've been delved into enough. A recurring theme in George's book is Elizabeth's feeling about the legacy of Henry VIII. In her panel, George explained that Elizabeth separated her father into "the man" and "the king," and as a king, she revered him and craved his approval. I can imagine her father did cast quite a shadow over her life, but how much she wanted to be a part of his legacy and how much she wanted to distance herself from it is another question. She kept his religion, but reversed his policies on war and spending; in many ways her court tried to follow his in grandeur and artistic pursuits though.

Read this book; fans of historical fiction, anyone interested in the Virgin Queen, anyone who loved Wolf Hall, anyone. It's a long book, but deftly written and organized. Just when you're tired of one narrator, the story shifts seamlessly to the other. This is another fictional biography, as great or greater in scope, understanding, and wit as the earlier book.

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