I have spent around six years perusing endless amounts of Tudor historical fiction. Along my way I have encountered many portrayals of Elizabeth I; some passable, some horrendous, and some very good. But until I read Legacy, I never found my ideal portrayal. Now I have, and it feels wonderful.
I received this book a few months ago, and since then it has not left my bedside table. Although I finished it in a day and a half, I have since read it three more times, not counting the hours I spend flipping to a random page to experience it again. This book is exquisite. Although it tells the entire arc of Elizabeth’s story from birth to death, it only weighs in at a few hundred pages. And yet nothing feels rushed or left out. There are countless POVs, which in the hands of a less gifted writer would cause confusion, but in Susan Kay’s hands gives us original insights into all the characters of Elizabeth’s world. And they’re all here, from Thomas Seymour to Henry VIII to numerous foreign ambassadors to the Earl of Essex. Each bring their own unique perspectives on the remarkable woman who dominates their existence.
Apart from Elizabeth (who I’ll get to in a moment) the best characterizations in the book are of Elizabeth’s lover, Robert Dudley, and her chief minister, William Cecil. Dudley is portrayed as authentically as I’ve ever seen him; greedy and self-serving perhaps, but also compellingly human, a man torn in different directions and above all, passionately in love with Elizabeth. Cecil is given just as thorough a treatment. Principled and pragmatic, a family man with a ruthless streak, Cecil loves Elizabeth as much as Dudley does, although in a different way. As the book says, “one desired her body, the other her spirit.” The triangle of these three people forms the central conflict of the book, as both men are eventually destroyed by their devotion to her.
But it is the portrayal of Elizabeth that makes this book so wonderful. It’s as if Susan Kay reached into my mind, pulled out every thought I’ve ever had about Elizabeth while researching her, and transformed it into a stunning characterization that every few pages made me catch my breath and say “yes!” Her Elizabeth is brilliant, vain, narcissistic, loving, selfish, brave, charming, manipulative, patriotic, and above all magnetically charismatic. She has the “x” factor that other writers of Elizabeth seem to miss; the reason why Elizabeth was such a beloved leader and how she was able to command such affection and fear. To quote the book, “Elizabeth Tudor was a labyrinth. She drew people, without conscious effort, into the maze of her own personality and abandoned them there, leaving them to find their own way out again–if they could. Most found they were unable to, many never even tried. And those few who succeeded were troubled by a vague sense of loss for the rest of their days.” (p. 13).
I cannot recommend this book more, to everyone from a dedicated student of Tudor history to a complete beginner. Much like Elizabeth, this book is completely magnetic–once you pick it up, I dare you to put it down. It is a book about a fascinating period of history, yes, but first and foremost it is a character study of a truly remarkable woman.