What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Epic Saga of an Epic Life

If you happen to be a historical fiction fan, and admirer of Margaret George's chunkster novels, by the time you add this 688-page monster to your collection you'll need to add a new shelf to accommodate them all...

But onto the book's contents, which, after all, is what this blog is about. Except that in this case, the length of this novel, which covers the final years of Elizabeth Tudor's reign (from the Spanish Armada to her death in 1603) is one of the issues in the content: it seems as if Margaret George has never had anyone tell her, look, you're in danger of repeating yourself here. Because while this is an often-fascinating and always well-researched novel about Tudor England, it seems that there isn't an event that it doesn't cover. That's why I read biographies, but not the reason I turn to historical fiction, which I expect to be a distillation of themes and ideas, not an encyclopaedia.

What does work in this book is the alternating points of view between Elizabeth and her cousin and rival, long-banished Lettice Knollys. Lettice dared to marry Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and possibly the only man Elizabeth ever loved; she was the mother of another of Elizabeth's favorites, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, who the queen later executed for treason. So alternating between the bitter and ambitious Lettice and the determined and resourceful queen is a clever approach, giving the reader two different and equally biased perspectives on events. For instance, when Elizabeth decides to ban all later portraits of herself from public view, she is removing unflattering portraits that might cause her enemies to try to take advantage of what they believe to be her weakness. To Lettice, the action is vanity, pure and simple. I found the episodes narrated by Lettice to be the most appealing and intriguing: she dallies with William Shakespeare, and her adventures are the author's way of showing us what some Elizabethans believed to be messages about contemporary affairs hidden within Shakespearean plays such as Richard II. Reading Elizabeth's point of view was more tedious, as it seemed to revolve around the same handful of concerns: containing the Spanish; reining in Essex's hubris; grieving as old counselors and friends die.

It took a few weeks for me to finish reading a book that I might have read cover to cover in only a few days for just this kind of reason; after a couple of chapters, I felt as if I was simply plodding through the pages. Whereas in her books about Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots I didn't find the length any obstacle to my enjoyment, here it was definitely an impediment. George could have easily trimmed 200 pages from this book and, with some careful editing, have produced a book that kept all the essential ingredients and that was a more lively and focused narrative. As it stands, it's merely good -- a 3.8 star book that will probably only be read by historical fiction devotees. Certainly, no one else is likely to have the patience to make it to the end! Only mildly recommended, and only to historical fiction fans. It's certainly authoritative, but while it could end up being a kind of bookend to Margaret Irwin's trilogy (beginning with Young Bess, these books focus on Elizabeth's life leading up to her accession), it wasn't as enjoyable a book to read.

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