Perhaps no dynasty has captured our interest the way the Tudor dynasty has. More than four hundred years after the death of Elizabeth I, the last and longest–reigning Tudor, these five monarchs, who managed to unite Britain and launch it as a world power, continue to fascinate, even obsess, us.
Margaret George started her career writing about the Tudors with her acclaimed novel The Autobiography of Henry VIII. Now, several New York Times-bestselling novels later, George is at the top of her game as she dazzles us with the telling of the life of Elizabeth, one of history’s most powerful and intriguing women.
Opening with the threatened arrival of the seemingly invincible Spanish Armada, the novel weaves back to Elizabeth’s years of house arrest under her sister, Queen “Bloody“ Mary; her accession to the throne; her once–in–a–lifetime passion for Sir Robert Dudley which was stymied by her vow never to marry; as well as portraying her final years as perhaps the greatest monarch to ever rule Britain. Sharing the stage with the Virgin Queen is her cousin Lettice, granddaughter of Mary Boleyn and a veritable Queen of Earthly Delights, who secretly wed Robert Dudley, which stung Elizabeth so much that she banished Lettice from court. Still, the beautiful and seductive Lettice managed to wed several husbands, bed many lovers (military heroes as well as the greatest writers of the day), and produce a son, the swashbuckling and ambitious Robert Devereux, who became a favorite of Elizabeth’s but later led a rebellion against her and was executed for treason.
This is a spellbinding novel that will delight fans of Margaret George as well as the lovers of historical fiction. Margaret George is recognized in this field as a respected researcher; she spoke recently at an anniversary celebration at Hampton Court in England and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Carefully researched and deeply engrossing,Elizabeth I is George’s greatest achievement yet.
Margaret George has written numerous works of historical fiction, including The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Mary, Called Magdalene. This is her sixth novel. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, she currently lives with her husband in Madison, Wisconsin.
Q. This is your sixth novel about a historical person. What appeals to you about this type of storytelling? How does the marriage of fiction and history allow us to better understand iconic figures such as Elizabeth?
I like the challenge of biographical detective work. Treating history from a fictional, dramatic perspective allows me to explore the psychological dimensions of a person’s character in a way that conventional nonfiction biography does not. It gives license to get inside their heads, which is what we want with iconic figures.
Q. Why Elizabeth in particular? Were you surprised by anything you found in the course of your research? Did your initial understanding of Elizabeth shift as you researched and wrote this novel?
Elizabeth is the siren call to novelists; she has “a spirit full of incantation,” as the Spanish ambassador Renard said. But she is also that “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” that defines our efforts to know her. In spite of being (as one historian put it) the second most famous virgin in the world, Elizabeth is tantalizingly elusive. We feel instinctively that she is guarding a secret of some kind. One of her earliest biographers said, “For as to her mind, what that really was, I must leave, as a thing doubly inscrutable, both as she was a woman and a queen.” As I followed the trail of clues she left, I was astounded by how she could be both so open and accessible in some ways and yet so private in the things that mattered. Her motto “I see and say keep silent” (Video et taceo) sums her up very well. She allowed herself to be seen only in certain lights and from certain angles. Her tomb effigy reveals what she really looked like—the forbidden image that was never shown in her official portraits, where she is forever young and perfect–featured. Whatever her secrets were, she took them with her into the tomb.
Q. What is the research process like for you? What helps you the most? You like to travel—is it important for you to see the places where a character has lived?
The first step for me is reading—I start out with the general and gradually get more and more specific, because I like to see the big picture first. In Elizabeth’s case, since so much is written about her, the challenge was to narrow the reading to the most important texts and not be sidetracked by the many others. It’s a luxury to read things more than once—letting the initial impression sink in and then refreshing the details. Of course it’s very important to go to a place; I don’t see how I could understand the character otherwise. Often, though, the landscape has changed or the setting is destroyed, so if something is intact and accessible that’s a real victory. In Elizabeth’s case, only Hampton Court and the Tower of London remain as they were (more or less) when she saw them. Greenwich has been rebuilt entirely, Richmond Palace was destroyed by Cromwell, Whitehall was burned. Even the River Thames is different, because it was embanked in Victorian times and is much narrower now. Seeing actual objects that Elizabeth owned or touched is very important— it makes her real. In the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a crystal bracelet she gave her cousin Henry Carey, which makes both characters more immediate.
Q. Over the course of writing a novel, authors become deeply attached to their characters and to the world that they have created. Beyond Elizabeth, which character was a favorite of yours, and why?
I found Walter Raleigh to be fascinating, particularly because he was so keen on exploring the New World. Drake was more interested in the sea than in the land and saw the New World as only a place to plunder or attack the Spanish, but Raleigh was intrigued by the biology and exotic cultures he found. His search for El Dorado in South America is a tale of high adventure and his childlike belief in it is touching. His poetry, his romances, his style, are all expected in the Tudor court, but his explorations and scientific curiosity and imagination set him apart from his fellows.
Q. You wrote a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, prior to writing Elizabeth I. It would be an understatement to say the two women had a complicated relationship. For any readers who might not have had the chance to read your earlier book, could you briefly describe their bond? Did this earlier book influence your writing of Elizabeth I in any way?
Mary Queen of Scots presented Elizabeth with the toughest political dilemma she ever faced. They were cousins—first cousins once removed, as Henry VII was Mary’s great–grandfather and Elizabeth’s grandfather. Mary, almost a decade younger than Elizabeth, was crowned queen of Scotland when she was only nine months old, but spent her childhood at the French court, while her mother reigned for her in Scotland. When Mary returned to Scotland at the age of nineteen, she was out of step with her people—she could barely speak the language and was Catholic in a Protestant country. At first Elizabeth looked kindly on her as a kinswoman and fellow monarch, but a series of disastrous political missteps on Mary’s part soured Elizabeth’s opinion of her. When Mary fled to England (having lost her crown in Scotland) she threw herself on Elizabeth’s mercy, assuming that Elizabeth would restore her to the throne. Although Elizabeth believed in the divine right of kings, restoring Mary to the throne would not have worked in Elizabeth’s own political interest. Elizabeth had extremely conflicted emotions toward Mary—her sentimental feelings as a close cousin versus her caution as a guardian of England’s interests—but Mary’s behavior in England ultimately killed Elizabeth’s trust in her. The two queens never met, although they exchanged letters and tokens after the fashion of the day.
This book begins after Mary has been executed and has set in motion the forces that led to the Armada a year later. Elizabeth has finally come to terms with what has happened, reluctantly admitting to herself that the practical results of the action she was so ambivalent about have been positive for England. Now the Catholics had no alternative to Elizabeth as queen, and the choice was only between Elizabeth and King Philip of Spain, which none of her subjects would want.
The book enabled me to depict the aftermath of Elizabeth’s agonizing decision about Mary and her perspective going forward.
Q. The public’s perception of Elizabeth has changed from generation to generation. What does our current imagining of Elizabeth say about contemporary society? Why do certain views of or attitudes toward Elizabeth persist?
Indeed, following the changing public perception of Elizabeth is a good way to chart the concerns of any particular era. She has been seen as the champion of Protestantism (1700s), Good Queen Bess of “merrie England” of the Golden Age (early 1800s), the imperial founder of the British Empire, (Victorian era), a repressed virgin who abjured love for duty (1900s). Today she is seen as the ultimate emancipated woman, the CEO to end all CEOs. We project our values onto her, making her a fulfillment of our own dreams. However, the older stereotypes have not gone away. As religion and nationalism have become unfashionable in modern Europe, those bolstering icons have faded, but the ones about Elizabeth as an unfulfilled, sacrificial virgin remain, with the related images of her as vain, petty, and cruel to young lovers of whom she is jealous. Since sex has gone from being sinful to being essential for one’s health in popular culture, Elizabeth’s virginity has been under assault, with one group claiming she couldn’t possibly have been, and remained healthy, and another saying that even if she were a virgin, clearly she was miserable and frustrated with it.
Q. Why was the role of the Virgin Queen, the Faerie Queen so evocatively presented by poet Edmund Spenser, such an effective political strategy for Elizabeth?
Elizabeth had a seemingly insoluble dilemma on her hands—she did not want to marry (for both personal and political reasons) but an unmarried woman had never successfully held a throne. She did not hit on the tactic of elevating her virginity into something sacred for the nation immediately. It took a while to evolve. Spenser’s allegory about her as a mythological character, a Faerie Queen surrounded by worshippers and minions, gave a visual and poetic version of this idea, one that could be further expanded by paintings and ceremonies. It also echoed the earlier cult of the Virgin Mary, which had been popular for centuries before being abruptly ended by the Reformation in England. There was, in effect, a vacant place in people’s hearts for a benevolent, loving Virgin who protected her people. Elizabeth filled that emptiness in her nation’s soul.
Q. What do you feel is Elizabeth’s greatest triumph in the novel?
That she created her own way of ruling, and was uniquely successful. Had the song existed then, she could have hummed “I did it my way” on her deathbed:
I didn’t marry, in spite of the pressures to do so; I married my country instead. I turned being a woman from a liability into a strength, with the cult of the Virgin Queen, binding my people to me. I did not try to conquer lands, but only to preserve my own, and gave my country peace and stability. I did not attack Spain by land in conventional warfare but by sea where my small country was stronger, and defeated her. I kept people dangling with my “answers answerless,” sometimes for years, while I forged a new model for ruling, and for wielding power. Yes, I did it my way!
Q. Do you see any elements—for example, themes or styles—that define you as a writer?
I have always been fascinated with the dimension of time, how it goes only one way, to our sorrow. Time creates a series of selves that we cannot change or revisit. It causes us to lose ourselves and to mourn that. As A. E. Housman wrote, “That is the land of lost content/I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again.” Another of my themes, tied in with time, is the fickleness of fortune. Elizabeth’s first recorded written words, when she was eleven, were “Inimical fortune, envious of all good and ever revolving human affairs.” The ancients said fortune had a lock of hair in the front of her head and
was bald in the back, so she could only be grasped as she approached but never after she had passed. I am always struck by how my characters’ lives have been governed by their ability—or lack of it—to snatch their passing fortune, and how quickly their fortunes can change.
Q. Several writers make appearances in your book, including Shakespeare and Marlowe. Are these writers particular favorites of yours? Do you have any works from this period that you would recommend to your readers?
I do love Shakespeare, particularly his tragedies and histories, as well as his sonnets. And my favorite Marlowe play isDoctor Faustus. In some ways all my characters must confront the Mephistophelean temptation. But I’ve always been enthralled by John Donne. There are so many wonderful poems of his—“The Good Morrow,” “The Sunne Rising,” “Aire and Angels,” “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucies Day,” and the incomparable “The Autumnall,” which I quote in Elizabeth I. I would recommend all his songs, sonnets, and elegies to my readers.
Q. Why did you decide to give the last words of the novel to Lettice? What is the significance of her prophecy, “You will, my children. You will” (p. 662)?
I was introducing the afterlife in fame and fantasy that awaited Elizabeth. By the time Lettice was ninety, Elizabeth had already taken on mythological status; few eyewitnesses to her reign were still alive. Lettice was one of the few, but her own grandchildren knew only the legend. And with the perspective of years, Lettice herself could now see the larger–than–life person that Elizabeth was all along, could embrace
her greatness and celebrate it. I thought that having the children ascribe impossible feats to Elizabeth foreshadowed what other ages did later on. Lettice pointed out that the genius of Elizabeth was to inspire others to greatness and to believe they were living in a special age in a uniquely blessed country. That was the hardest task for a ruler, and perhaps Elizabeth’s greatest gift to them.
Q. Elizabeth I has been portrayed in many films and miniseries. Which actress do you feel has captured her best? Do you have favorite films to suggest to readers?
I think Glenda Jackson’s portrayal in the BBC series Elizabeth R (1971) comes closest to capturing Elizabeth, both her sharpness and her charm. Of films of that era, A Man for All Seasons (1966) is the standout, but Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Mary Queen of Scots (1972)—again with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Queen of Scots—are very good as well.
Q. What qualities must a historical figure possess to inspire you to write about them? Whose life will you be interpreting next?
Because I am fascinated by the “destiny” theme, I am drawn to characters who have grabbed their destiny and gone down fighting, people who have led operatic lives, almost impossibly dramatic. They are “larger than life,” except that they actually lived. At the same time, there should be things about them that most people don’t know, and they should in some sense suffer from an inaccurate image, otherwise I offer nothing new for the reader to discover.
True to form, I want next to tackle both Nero and Boudica, enemies in the first century. Nero himself is the Roman emperor in excessive grandeur, and Boudica, the chariot–driving Celtic warrior queen who led an uprising against the occupying Romans, is a national hero in Britain. What a clash! What personas!
Q. What was it like to speak at Hampton Court? Was your sense of Elizabeth changed by walking in her house and gardens?
Speaking in the Great Hall of Hampton Court was a great honor. The other panelists were all renowned historians and writers and as we sat beneath Henry VIII’s famous hammerbeam roof I felt the presence of all the historic figures that had once crowded that chamber.
During the week I was there I came and went in Hampton Court as if it were home, and did feel closer to Elizabeth. It is the most intact of all her palaces, and also the one most associated with her parents. Anne Boleyn was the first mistress of Hampton Court, and high in the roof of the Great Hall a few entwined initials of Henry and Anne remain. Henry had planned the gardens, and so whenever Elizabeth was there she must have felt the presence of both her parents. She liked to keep holidays there—Shrovetide and Christmas—because the palace was so festive and elaborately decorated. She also set up a garden where plants from the New World—tobacco and potatoes—could be grown. I could imagine her explorers Drake and Raleigh examining the crops there and discussing them with Elizabeth.