Overly busy novel of life inside the Virgin Queen’s court—and mind.
Anyone who’s read history or seen Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 bloodfest Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, knows that the daughter of Henry VIII was no one to mess with. Indeed, as George’s novel opens, well into her reign, Queen Elizabeth is sternly interrogating “the three most powerful men in the realm,” one of whom, Sir Francis Walsingham, is famously not shy of doing in the various opponents to her rule, such as Mary, Queen of Scots. England, Elizabeth avers, is the bulwark of the Reformation against a resurgent Catholic Church—explains one of those three, in a flat, modern and wholly anachronistic way, “It’s religious, but it’s also political.” Indeed. A viper in the nest, Elizabeth’s cousin, the vivacious redhead Lettice Knollys, has reasons aplenty to oppose the queen on several counts, not least of them old-fashioned familial rivalry, and George’s novel traces their long dance of fate against the backdrop of Tudor hanky-panky and an inconvenient Spanish Armada, the former more daunting and certainly more entertaining than the latter, since the Spanish fleet is all too quickly smashed against the rocks of Ireland. George tells her tale from multiple points of view, sometimes confusingly, and her prose tends to be without affect—or, for that matter, zing. In the hands of a master of period language, a John Barth, say, this tangled tale would doubtless spring to life, but as it is it’s all rather clinical, with intonations such as “It is in the nature of truth to have enemies” to remind us that we’re in the midst of important events. The tale is also nicely bloody and byzantine, but it goes on much too long; Hilary Mantel packed a lot more punch into Wolf Hall (2009), and in a 100-odd pages less.
Historically sound, but without the sympathetic spark of the best historical fiction.