[13 May 2012]
Here it is, some 400 years since her death, and audiences of various media still can’t seem to get enough of Elizabeth I, queen of England, Wales, part of Ireland (sort of), and—according to contemporary claims by the English—France (though this last was simply political posturing hearkening back to the glory days of the rule of Henry V). In the last two decades, Elizabeth has been the subject of biographies, films, miniseries and, of course, numerous novels—which makes the definite article in the subtitle of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I: The Novel curious (the hardback appeared last year and the paperback is now available). Are we to take this as a confident declaration of the superiority of George’s novel over all others for enthusiasts of the life and legend of Elizabeth I?
Perhaps. Certainly George, who is the author of several historical novels that focus on famous or legendary women (Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy for example), can claim an impressive, indeed exhaustive, knowledge of Elizabeth’s life, career, and historical milieu. This knowledge is not likely to be surpassed by competing novels, and it’s amply displayed throughout Elizabeth I and the “Afterword” that follows it.
There George at least partially answers the question of why Elizabeth continues to fascinate contemporary audiences. Certainly the sheer length of her rule—from 1558 to 1603—is part of the answer, as is the fact that not long after her death the English people, generally dissatisfied with her successor James I, came to retroactively view her reign as a golden age despite the political tension and simmering religious conflict that sometimes pervaded it. The flowering of English literature—both in poetry and in drama—that coincided with her reign is part of the answer, as well. And of course, the fact that the famously never-married Elizabeth successfully exercised power in a deeply patriarchal age—thereby serving as a rare instance of female autonomy in the historical record–cannot be forgotten.
George, though, is less interested in celebrating Elizabeth’s mystique than in giving readers an intimate portrait of Elizabeth over the course of the latter part of her reign during such incidents as several intended invasions by the Spanish and an ongoing colonial project in Ireland. The novel is almost wholly in the first-person, with Elizabeth herself narrating her response to the momentous historical episodes in which she, her counselors, her courtiers, and some of her personal servants are seminal players.
Elizabeth’s narrative is, however, routinely interrupted by chapters related from the first-person perspective of Lettice Knollys, a kinswoman of Elizabeth who earned the queen’s enmity by marrying Elizabeth’s favorite Robert Dudley. Presumably, this second voice is intended to offer a counter-narrative to Elizabeth’s, thereby offering an implicit and explicit critique to Elizabeth’s version of her conduct and deliberative cultivation of worshipful admiration. It is, however, far too underdeveloped to accomplish this task and simply contributes bulk to a novel that, at over 650 pages, is far too long.
There is, of course, no proper length for a novel—it should be as long as needed to develop its plots and subplots. The problem is that Elizabeth I doesn’t really have a plot. Instead, as suggested above, it moves from significant occasion to significant occasion, and constitutes a kind of retrospective of the greatest moments of Elizabeth’s reign and her imagined thoughts during and about them. This is not an approach that is likely to make for exciting reading. And unfortunately, George’s impressive knowledge, which frequently manifests itself in the inclusion of extraneous details (ingredients for certain foods, for example), only further slows the already plodding pace.
George’s aim throughout is to “humanize” Elizabeth, to remove the carapace of majesty and celebratory historical hindsight, so that readers may discover the vulnerable and uncertain person beneath. This the novel certainly accomplishes. but George’s Elizabeth is, frankly, just too nice. Certainly, Elizabeth I contains occasional allusions to the towering temper and astonishing vanity that approached, if they did not quite equal, the megalomania of Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII, but the predominant mood is one of good feeling and sympathy. For example, here is Elizabeth’s response to the valiant display of martial courage by an elderly counselor: “Very few things make me cry, but I felt tears gathering in my eyes. This old man, defending the realm, made me proud to be Queen of the English people as never before.”
The problem is not that Elizabeth might have genuinely felt affection for her subjects—it’s certainly the novelist’s prerogative to imagine as much—but George’s account is suspiciously right in line with Elizabeth’s brilliant presentation of herself as an infinitely sweet mother figure. This is a presentation that many of her contemporaries realized was savvy political theater. There is, in other words, very little calculation or guile or toughness or hard ambition in this Elizabeth. The underlying logic is straightforward: she’s a good and successful ruler because she’s basically a good person. In fact, she’s just like anyone else—complaining about the discomfort caused by new shoes, gossiping with her maids (or, as she sometimes calls them, “the girls”), fretting over what clothes to wear.
The impression of superficiality is also partly due to George’s handling of one the historical fiction writer’s toughest tasks: balancing intelligibility with the need to reproduce at least some of the idiomatic language, patterns of speech and thought, and modes of expression that prevailed in the time and place in which the work takes place. Err too far on the side of the former and a novel sounds like bad costume drama; err too far on the side of the latter and a novel sounds like an overheard conversation at the shopping mall food court.
Elizabeth I is guilty of the latter. Throughout it is sprinkled with language such as: “...it was only a matter of time before [a Catholic monarch] would take me on”; “It was enough to put [me] in a bad mood all day”; [I saw] that his beard was totally white… ” This use of contemporary colloquial language frequently undermines the ambiance established by George’s otherwise careful attention to historical detail.
While Elizabeth I: The Novel can certainly claim preeminence in the matters of historical accuracy and comprehensive knowledge of its subject matter, its version of the Virgin Queen is not likely to be the last.