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Apr 27, 2011

In the Footsteps of Elizabeth I: Margaret George Does Dallas!!

Ok, well she DID do Dallas. I had the fabulous opportunity of meeting with Margaret George after her Arts  & Letters Live lecture that was held at the Dallas Museum in April for her Elizabeth I: A Novel tour. You can read my review of Elizabeth I here. I loved the book, and I was so thrilled that she was coming to Dallas. Margaret is very sweet in person, and her lecture spoke of her writing processes as well as her main character, Elizabeth. This couldn't come at a better time for me personally, as I feel I have now read so much on Elizabeth from non-fiction to fiction that I have a firm grasp of her character.

Yet, as Margaret suggested, there is always something intangible about Elizabeth, something vague that a reader always struggles to capture. But can a writer capture that? I believe Margaret rounded out Elizabeth's story very well for me, especially since the novel focused on the later years of her reign. Most of the reads I came across would focus on Elizabeth's lusty father and all of his wives, and if it focused on Elizabeth there were always scenes regarding Thomas Seymour or Robert Dudley. This time around, we had Dudley's step-son, the Earl of Essex as a leading character along with Lettice Knollys who is also a favorite Tudor of mine.
Margaret's lecture was titled "In the Footsteps on Queen Elizabeth I: Adventures In Research". She shared with us her experiences of becoming a writer, and her research tactics. She didn't have scholarly training as a writer, but she had great fortune to live in foreign places as a child due to father's career. Living in places like Israel, she felt very close to history as a child living next to places where historic events occurred. Her school in Jaffa, The Tabitha School, was run by strict Scottish missionaries, and was supposedly the place where St. Peter raised the little girl Tabitha who had died also known as Dorcas. She said she came from a bookish family, where her father had Ph.D. in 18th century literature and her mother taught high school English, and they all liked to read. She started writing as a hobby when she was young, from stories about horses to teenage stories as something that she did for her own pleasure. Only once she decided to write Henry VIII's story is when she became focused on her writing. Margaret wanted to introduce a young Henry to readers, when at that time there was not a lot about the young Henry as opposed to the monstrous traits that some writers focus on. Although Margaret has given us the story of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots and now Elizabeth, we won't be seeing a book on Mary Tudor anytime soon from Margaret. She feels Mary's life is just so full of depressing events and it would just be sad to delve into her story.

Margaret went on to discuss her research process of reading books for research, making notations (in pencil!) in the margins, and then writing separate index cards categorized by topic. She showed us an example of an index card for her research on Elizabeth's progresses where Margaret made notes of what book referred to which progress in which year and what unique fact she learned that could be incorporated into her developing story. Elizabeth used these progresses as a bit of PR, and she liked to do them during the summer. It was very interesting to see how Margaret detailed out the pages numbers of which book to get herself organized to store facts such as how far a progress went and how long it was. Once upon a time, she used to write her huge books by hand! She also discussed the merits of first person versus third person point of views and how she used those in her books.

When Margaret is done with the actual researching of books and filling in index cards, she prefers to go to the actual places in her story. She visited the sites of Elizabeth just as she did for her previous books. At this point in the lecture, Margaret held up an Elizabeth tea cosy (audience laughed when Margaret was poking around under the tea cosy), showing how some of the royal figures in history get reduced to such a thing, but yet we still have no idea of who Elizabeth was. She really feels like the only way to get a glimpse of what's inside her character's heads is to be put in that setting of which they lived. Elizabeth left almost no private letters, and her poetry that is attributed to her cannot actually be authenticated.  We get nuances of Elizabeth through the contemporaries, but Elizabeth controlled her image as much as she could, as well as controlling what portraits were commissioned of her.

Margaret also discussed the outlook Elizabeth may have had on her beheaded mother, Anne Boleyn. She showed us a photo of the ring Elizabeth had commissioned which features both the portraits of Anne and Elizabeth. Even though she didn't attempt to rehabilitate Anne's reputation, she clearly had some bond or love of her mother simply for the fact that she wore that ring. And her father.. well, what do you do when your father beheads your mother? (More audience laughter). Elizabeth learned much from her father's reign, and she learned early on regarding the dangers of being close to the throne. Margaret shows us a portrait of Elizabeth when she was about thirteen years old, and how it was abundant with books. Did she want to portray the fact that she was a harmless bookworm, with no ambitions of the throne for herself, especially being third in line to the throne? It certainly was a clue that she was someone to not be tossed off as a silly girl. Further portraits of Elizabeth were always heavy with symbols, many dealing with purity and virginity.

The Ermine Portrait, 1585

An intriguing fact of Elizabeth is the fact that she was the Virgin Queen. Margaret discusses how Elizabeth wouldn't marry someone among her subjects (Dudley), which leads to rivalry and maybe riots. Yet, why didn't she want to marry to merge with another foreign power? She knew that to do so, England would be put at risk after her death. She also didn't want to share her status as Queen and give off any power to a consort which would breed discontent just as Philip of Spain did when he married Elizabeth's sister, Mary I. At the time, sexual relations conferred a legal status of a relationship, thus compromising her royal sovereignty. Margaret goes further into the speculations of the marriage negotiations, and the psychological reasons behind Elizabeth's refusal to marry. As popular story goes, King Henry IV of France reportedly said that Elizabeth's maidenhead was one of the three great mysteries of his day. He did not say what the other two were!  The audience loved this little story!

Margaret talked about the major crises or her reign: Mary Queen of Scots, the Armada, and the Earl of Essex. Elizabeth was not a vicious ruler like that of her father. She didn't want to execute Mary Queen of Scots or the Earl, but only did so when she had no other choice when they threatened Elizabeth's crown. An interesting fact Margaret offered is that Essex was the last nobleman to actually challenge the crown thereafter. Elizabeth's reign did not encompass many notable positive changes or events such as the Magna Carta, yet she goes down in history as a much loved monarch.

Elizabeth loved controlling her image such as her orchestration of the famous scene of addressing her troops wearing her virginal white dress as well as a breast plate. If anyone missed the speech she wrote, Elizabeth made sure it was copied and distributed throughout the land. Margaret shows us some portraits as well as her funeral effigy. The effigy was probably made from her death mask and the closest we would come to an accurate image of her, as she was not around to make sure it make her look young and vibrant.

After discussing Elizabeth, the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions of Margaret George. She told us that she is studying Nero for her next book, as she loves larger than life characters, and it takes about five years for her books to shape out. So we'll have quite a wait, yet that gives me the chance to read the rest of Margaret George's books. I think I will start with Mary Magdalene..

Margaret George signing, & me, being ecstatic.
Of course, after the lecture, I was able to get my books signed by Margaret George! I apologize for the yucky photos, iPhones are not the best cameras.. but here I am with Margaret George! She personalized and autographed the books, and she was such a pleasure to meet. She was extremely gracious, especially by scoring me those wonderful front row seats at the Dallas Museum. I was honored to be escorted by my mum who puts up with my bookish pursuits and gets to read my books sometimes before I do! Thank you to Margaret George for giving me memories to treasure for a lifetime!
Front row reserved seats for me! Squee!!