I have all the same words of praise for Margaret George that I do for my other favourite historical fiction writer, Sharon Kay Penman — her work is brilliantly detailed, exhaustively researched, always well-written and informative. I also have the same complaint: in the case of both writers, I find that their more recent works lack the emotional depth and resonance of their earlier books, and I don’t know why that is. I’m sure I wouldn’t have found a fault with this first-person account of the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign (from the defeat of the Armada to her death, with particular emphasis on her relationship with Essex), if I hadn’t been comparing it to the first Margaret George novel I read, her masterful novel about Elizabeth’s father, The Autobiography of Henry VIII. Both books are equally thorough and well-research glimpses into the lives of the great Tudor monarchs, but there’s an emotional intensity and depth to the earlier book that I found lacking in this latest one.
That’ s not to say it’s not well worth reading, because it is, and if I could lay aside the temptation to compare it to earlier works I’d probably be completely content. I did find that the story drew me in more and more, and Elizabeth became more real to me, as I got further into the book, though I never felt I really got inside her head as much as I’d have liked to. Her point of view is occasionally interrupted with chapters from the viewpoint of her cousin and frequent rival, Lettice Knollys, and I found the two points of view interesting. Even with a certain emotional thinness, this is still a book well worth picking up if you love historical fiction, and it may well be the best historical fiction you read this year until Hilary Mantel’s new book comes out in April. But more than anything it made me want to reread The Autobiography of Henry VIII and see if that book was still as amazing as I remembered it being.