A portrait of an aging queen

By Alison Lobron
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2011

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"Although Gloriana, the Faerie Queen, is eternal, each age fashioned her after its own needs,’’ writes Margaret George in the afterward to her newest historical novel, “Elizabeth I.’’ Some eras pitied England’s Virgin Queen for her supposed repressed passions while the current age, George believes, admires her as “the ultrasuccessful female CEO.’’

Set in the final 20 years of Elizabeth’s reign, George’s novel is the portrait of an aging powerful woman, one who struggles at times with her waning sexual allure even as she refuses to let its loss diminish her power. In other words, and at the risk of being trite, it’s an Elizabeth I to meet the needs of the baby boomer set.

This historical novel has considerable strengths, from impressive detail and a wonderfully evocative setting to dialogue that feels appropriately “old’’ without ever veering into hokey-ness. George brings the queen’s two major foreign-policy challenges — conflict with Spain and with Ireland — to life in a way that feels both immediate and relevant. But these achievements are at times outweighed both by the inclusion of (seemingly) everything that happened in England during the time period covered, and by the jarring choice to divide the story between two first-person narrators: Elizabeth herself, and her cousin, Lettice Knollys, who was wife to one of Elizabeth’s favorite courtiers and mother to another. The two narrators slow the pace down — a problem in such a lengthy tome — and the stories don’t intersect enough for a reader to gain traction. Had the novel covered the first half of Elizabeth’s reign, when she and her cousin were rivals for the affections of Robert Dudley, the narrative approach might have been to greater dramatic effect.

Nevertheless, the contrast between the two narrative voices successfully illustrates two very different modes of female power: the Virgin Queen vs. the seductive noblewoman who, near the novel’s beginning, has just snagged a third husband 20 years her junior. Occasionally, lines seem to come straight from a handbook for female executives: “What would it say of my word if I turned tail and ran at even a hint of danger?’’ the queen demands of a councilor who suggests she flee in anticipation of a possible Spanish attack. But George is at her best depicting the queen’s conversations with members of her council, particularly those surrounding the impulsive (and eventually treasonous) behavior of the Earl of Essex. These scenes — and Elizabeth’s complicated relationships with Essex and others — are among the most dynamic in the book.

While the sections narrated by Lettice feel less central to the story of Elizabeth, they add fun (and some ribaldry) to a novel that does, at times, get bogged down in state dinners and a soup-to-nuts account of the reign. Lettice also provides readers with a path-not-chosen for the queen, a reminder of all the things Elizabeth went without in order to “marry’’ England. Lettice gets the husbands and the kids and, in George’s telling, an extramarital romp with a wise and charming young playwright named Will. Elizabeth gets the power and the money and the complex relationships with her male advisers. If we get the Elizabeth we “need,’’ then, George’s new novel suggests we don’t just need a woman who successfully combats the gender discrimination of her time. We also need to ruminate on all the things she might or might not have given up.

Alison Lobron is a writer in Arlington and can be reached at

ELIZABETH I By Margaret George

Viking, 671 pp., $30