You would think that after three books on Elizabeth I, I would have had my fill of Elizabethan history. It all started with Jane Dunn’s excellent book on QE I’s relationship with Mary Queen of Scots. Then that was followed by Alison Weir’s full-on biography. My third one was Sarah Gristwood’s book focusing on Elizabeth’s relationship with the man who was arguably the love of her life, the Earl of Leicester. I’m not even counting my book on her father’s, Henry VIII’s, wives, which of course, touches on some of her childhood. All three books discuss their fascinating subject from different perspectives, there really could be no need for me to buy another one on Elizabeth I’s life, right?
I blame the blurbs, really. On the front, The New York Times Book Review called Anne Somerset’s Elizabeth I “The most comprehensive, the most reliable and the most readable biography of Elizabeth.” Surely high praise given the amount of material on QE I out there. Then on the back, Antonia Fraser, the writer of another favorite historical biography (Marie Antoinette: The Journey) called it her “favourite among the biographies of Queen Elizabeth I.” Man, the people who choose what blurbs to put on the cover of a book sure know their stuff. Like a moth to a flame, I bought the book. Any real Elizabeth I fan needs the book The Sunday Times (London) called the “most balanced and impartial” of them all, right?
Because in my opinion, Anne Somerset’s Elizabeth I is the definitive biography of one of the most fascinating women in our history. Now I am only comparing Somerset’s work to Weir’s as the other two books mentioned are not full biographies because they each focus on one particular relationship of the Queen’s. But I could say that, relative to Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I, the NYT Book Review was right. Somerset’s work was more comprehensive than Weir’s and, amazingly enough, the more readable one. And Elizabeth I was almost a hundred pages longer! The book was extremely detailed, even after three previous books, I still learned a lot of new things about Elizabeth and her court. But despite all that detail about the protracted but ultimately doomed courtships with the princes of Europe, the naval expeditions against Spain and the frustrating negotiations with the Protestants of the Netherlands, the book never feels weighed down by all the information. Somerset manages to make even things like the suppression of the Puritan movement, or the political maneuvering of Robert Cecil, if not fascinating, then interesting at the least. She lays out the hard, historical facts against a background of emotions, virtues and faults: unwavering loyalty (Lord Burghley), ruthless self-interest (the Earl of Essex), never-ending frustration (the Earl of Leicester, Francis Walsingham, James VI, the whole of parliament, etc.) and genuine concern for the well-being of her people (Elizabeth herself, of course). On the other hand, Weir’s novel reads more like a history textbook, which is not necessarily bad, but it makes it less of a page turner for me.
So yes, obviously, I needed this book. I think any fan of Elizabeth I’s should not be without it. As for the Alison Weir, not so much.