Historical fiction novelist Margaret George has never shied away from retelling a well known story. Her subjects have included: Henry the VIII, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Helen of Troy and now Elizabeth I. It takes a lot of nerve and a passionate love of the subject to tackle the life of a figure we could all know enough about to write a 200 word bio. Add to that the explosion of novels about the Tudors in the last few years and George's audaciousness is multiplied by a thousand.
There are two big, nice surprises in Elizabeth I. The first is that the book does not start with Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's birth or even her ascension to the throne. The novel begins when Elizabeth is 55 and the Spanish Armada is about to attack. She has already been Queen for almost thirty years and would remain Queen for only another fourteen years. According to most historians by this time the great successes of her reign were past. The second surprise is Lettice Knollys. Lettice was a cousin of Elizabeth's and one of her romantic and political rivals. In 1578 Lettice married for the second time, after having been married to the Earl of Essex, to Elizabeth's great favorite Robert Dudley. In her anger and jealousy Elizabeth banished Lettice from court.
George alternates the novels' chapters between Elizabeth and Lettice. These two women were very much alike. They were both ambitious, brilliant, gravely concerned about the future of their houses and powerful. Despite that those traits, shared blood (Lettice was the grandniece of Anne Bolyen)and agendas because of Lettice's marriage to Elizabeth's supposed lover and her son's efforts to power grab at court they were doomed to be enemies. That's not to say that George has written just a historical frenemy novel. The different narrators bring different perspectives to the detailed political and social events occurring during Elizabeth's reign that George covers.
Despite Margaret George's inspired decision to juxtapose Elizabeth and Lettice and to not tell Elizabeth's life story in a linear fashion, the novel never comes alive. It's quite disappointing. In Elizabeth I, George goes to g-r-e-a-t pains to write a relentlessly fact-filled opus. Unlike George's previous novels covering roughly the same period and family The Autobiography of Henry the VIII With Notes By His Fool Will Somers and Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, Elizabeth I is essentially a humorless, play-by-play imagining of the sovereign's daily planner over her lifetime. George didn't leave a drop of her research out of this book and the reader pays the price.