Elizabeth the Great Critical Overview
by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Critical Overview

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Jenkins is known for her popular biographies of English monarchs and authors, as well as for her many novels. Elizabeth the Great is considered Jenkins’s greatest work of nonfiction. The biography was both popular and critically acclaimed. Within three years of initial publication in 1958, the book had gone through seven printings. Critics praised Elizabeth the Great as an even-handed biography which appeals to the general reader. The work is considered historically accurate, without being bogged down by the dry, fact-laden histories often produced by academic scholars. She is also recognized for her restraint in not overly psychoanalyzing the subject of her biography in Elizabeth the Great. Jenkins maintains an even-handed representation of the queen’s personality, as well as of the various figures in her court. Jenkins’s ability to capture the flavor and texture of court life in Elizabethan England is attributed to her fine attention to detail.

Critics agree that Jenkins successfully maintains an entertaining, cohesive, well-paced narrative flow while touching on seventy years of English history. Charles Calder, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, described what he called ‘‘the solidity of the author’s technique’’ in Elizabeth the Great:

[Jenkins] has a capacity for opening chapters in a brisk and arresting manner, for accommodating the elaborated incident or set piece, and for interweaving passages of analysis or summary. The incorporating of these ingredients within a firm and clear narrative assures that there is no risk of monotony or tedium.

Calder aptly sums up the reasons for the high regard in which critics hold Jenkins:

She has made a substantial contribution to English biography in this [the twentieth] century. She is a popular biographer in the sense that her books have a wide appeal; she displays the virtues—but not, happily, the vices—of scholarly writing.