England’s greatest monarch has baffled and intrigued the world for centuries. But what was the Virgin Queen really like? Lettice Knollys—Elizabeth’s flame-haired, look-alike coussin—thinks she knows all too well. Elizabeth’s rival for the love of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and mother to the Earl of Essex, Lettice has been intertwined with Elizabeth since childhood.
This is a story of two women of fierce intellect and desire, one trying to protect her country and throne, the other trying to regain power and position for her family. Their rivalry, and its ensuing drama, soon involves everyone close to Elizabeth, from the famed courtiers who enriched the crown to the legendary poets and playwrights who paid homage to it with their works.
Filled with intimate portraits of the personalities who made the Elizabethan age great—Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dudley, Raleigh, Drake—Elizabeth I provides an unforgettable glimpse of a woman who considered herself married to her people. A queen who ruled as much from the heart as from the head.
It’s interesting that Margaret George chose to write about the less spectacular part of Queen Elizabeth’s life—or rather, her denouement, so to speak. It starts briefly during the Armada but quickly moves on to her relationship with Essex. And there it stays. Written alternately in first person both by the queen and by Essex’s mother Lettice Knollys, we get a thorough examination of this charming, self-centered, ambitious young man. Lettice, as we are quick to be reminded, had married Robert Dudley (the queen’s favorite) in secret and was thenceforth exiled from court. So we have this low-level tug of war between these two women over Essex, who does his best to reconcile them and only serves to exasperate Elizabeth even further. Outsiders see Elizabeth’s fascination for the young man as an old lady’s last fling, but she never quite admits such a thing. After all, many at court are taken in by his charisma as well. The queen does admit to temptation on occasion, but she is much too sensible:
The Virgin Queen. The curious Virgin Queen. Do I truly want to go to my grave never even knowing what it is I have turned my back on? Do I not feel cheated in the deepest sense?
Especially if no one would ever know.
But Essex talks. He is a gossip.
I can deny it. Whom will they believe?
If only something could be done and then immediately erased, made not to exist. As we can taste a piece of pastry and then spit it out without swallowing it. But this is not like that. Once done it is done forever.
I don’t think she really believes Essex’s protestations of love and adoration. But what older woman wouldn’t enjoy such attention from a beautiful young man? Nonetheless, Essex is a fool and abuses Elizabeth’s trust again and again, until he goes too far. Anyone who has read about Queen Elizabeth knows the story. There’s nothing new here. I admit I read the book with little enthusiasm; it even helped put me to sleep a few times. But the author’s prose is so effortless I continued to the end. It was kind of like communing with an old friend—both of them. I knew what was going to happen; my interest was in seeing how these two narrators dealt with the situation. By now, the queen is worn out and it’s sad to see her limp along from day to day. There’s little joy left in her life. All her familiar friends and advisors fade away. It’s a sad book, really. Now that I’m a “senior citizen” myself, I can relate to it!