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George Garrett: The Succession

The second in Garrett’s Elizabethan trilogy is about the succession of Elizabeth I and, in particular, whether James VI of Scotland will succeed the unmarried, childless queen. Though the focus is on Elizabeth and James, there is no central character as there was in Death of a Fox. Both monarchs remain monarchs and do not become human beings as Raleigh was. We see them through their letters, through third person narration and even when they speak but we see them as distant. While their real relationship was conducted through letters – they never met – so Garrett shows them through letters in this book but the letters are formal, not warm and tender. Though, in his introduction, Garrett says he intended merely to use the letters of the two monarchs to show what was happening, he changed his mind and, as with Death of a Fox, we follow the story from different points of view – from the historical (the monarchs themselves and Sir Robert Cecil, who interprets the letters of the monarchs) to the ordinary, unnamed, fictitious characters, including a messenger, a Catholic priest on the run, a player (and former spy) and a courtier (who tells the story of Elizabeth and Essex). The result is to give us not just a discussion on the succession and what the key players thought and did about it but, more importantly, to give us a rich panorama of life under Elizabeth. While the history is important – and Garrett certainly does not ignore it – it is life in Elizabethan England that is so fascinating in this novel, whether it is Essex and his extravagance or the Scottish reivers (border raiders) and their fine tales of gypsies, their narrow escapes and their tales of King James V and Mary, Queen of Scots or the Catholic priest, always on the run, afraid of capture, torture and death, but always following his conscience, saying mass and hearing confession, while really wanting just to go home. For me, this is the finest of the three novels in the trilogy, with its rich fund of stories of Elizabethan life, backed with an important historical epoch, and telling us, even more than its predecessor, what life was like then, at least as seen through the wonderful imagination of one of our contemporaries.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Doubleday