The second half of Elizabeth Tudor’s life, while the most revelatory, is also the most painful from a personal perspective: an aging woman on the world stage. The queen grows old without the comfort of a mate, unwilling to trust her kingdom to an ambitious man who would surely love the throne more than his queen. This is the Virgin Queen’s great dilemma, the source of anguish and pride, from sought-after beauty to carefully trussed and painted monarch. After the death of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth is bereft; he is the one man who loved her in spite of her jealous vigilance and conflicted emotions. Dudley’s marriage to Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys, earns Lettice a deserved banishment from court and the eternal enmity of her cousin, a fact that serves as foil in the novel’s alternating chapters between Elizabeth and Lettice.
George resists playing into the popularly romanticized notions of a lonely queen in thrall to a dashing younger man. This Elizabeth is no fool, even if she yearns to revisit her youth with an obviously opportunistic and arrogant Essex, a man propped up by the self-serving rationalizations of his mother, Lettice.
The novel begins with a test of Elizabeth’s mettle and leadership, the first clash with Philip of Spain’s Armada - a victory for England, but only one of the harrowing skirmishes that plague the country through Philip’s machinations: “God breathed and they were scattered.” Unrest in Ireland creates another threat, an opportunity for attack in a land that refuses to be dominated by the rule of England. Religious unrest remains volatile in a country that adapted Protestantism in earnest with Henry VIII, much to the ire of the Catholics, who lose their partisan in Bloody Mary Tudor when Elizabeth ascends the throne: “It was an odd, tense marriage between inward Protestant theology and outward Catholic trappings.”
Given the weight of the crown of England, the passage of years and the momentous decisions forced upon Elizabeth, the usual supporting cast of characters people Elizabeth’s advisors and friends: Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, trusted men who grow old with their queen, the counterpoint provided by Knollys, who steals Dudley from Elizabeth only to position her son, Robert Devereux, to step into Leicester’s place in the queen’s affections. This uneasy relationship creates one of Elizabeth’s most enduring conflicts. On the downside of beauty, patience and hopefulness, Essex provides an escape from the solitary path Elizabeth has embraced, the queen particularly vulnerable as her trusted counselors die.
An instinctive opportunist, Devereux is quick to sense his monarch’s weakness, assuming ownership of the emotional vacuum created by Leicester’s death but without the absolute devotion necessary to maintain the delicate balance between affection and ambition. As Essex grows bolder, Elizabeth is forced to acknowledge the foolishness of her emotional dalliance: “Essex was eager to gallop off to glory, but he had no destination.”
Though little is known of Elizabeth’s interior life, an endless stream of books both scholarly and fictional have cobbled together a colorful portrait of the fascinating years of Elizabeth Tudor’s reign. George adds nuance and subtlety to this woman, more fully fleshing out an enigmatic ruler - passionate and headstrong, arrogant and majestic, yet riddled with doubt and the terrible loneliness of her decision to remain the solitary Virgin Queen. While Knollys plots and schemes to reclaim her place near the throne, sharing her bed and favors with younger men, her son, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is unable to restrain his baser nature and impulse toward grandiosity: “It is within my grasp, all I want. Why should I stop now?” But it is the queen who steers this ship of state, who loves her country above any man and proves herself the equal of any ruler, then or since: “Three cheers for her majesty, a prince and better than a king.”
A rousing, unsentimental treatment of the marriage of woman and royalty, wed to no man, George’s iconic Elizabeth will stand the test of time.