'Elizabeth I': Thick Book, Thin Characters

This comprehensively researched portrait of Elizabeth I falls short of capturing the Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I: The Novel

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 671 pages
Author: Margaret George
Price: $17.00
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2011-03

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: “ 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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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