Historical fiction is not the most highly regarded form of novel writing, yet the well-done and carefully researched historical novel can convey qualities of the past that elude even the most eloquent of historians. What one misses in even the best history books is a feeling of the age, the sensory experience of life at another time. The danger in historical writing of any kind is that the author will assume that people of the past experienced the world as people do today, that the processes of thought and the categories of experience are unchanged. Bad historical writing presents modern people in the clothes and buildings of the past. Such writing is always anachronistic, for it is probable that people of the past did think and feel differently from people of today. To re-create that different experience of the world in a way that has the ring of authenticity is a major act of the imagination.
George Garrett has achieved such an imaginative reconstruction on two occasions. More than a decade ago, he published Death of the Fox (1971), a splendid re-creation of the life of Sir Walter Raleigh. Now, he offers The Succession, a tour de force of historical reconstruction. In both cases, the plot he treats is well-known. Garrett is chiefly concerned with re-creating the human dimension of the past, suggesting how those involved in major events experienced them. In fact, the narrative of the events recounted in The Succession is so secondary to Garrett’s chief concerns that it rarely makes an appearance. Instead, he devotes most of his energies to having participants in that story describe what they did and why they did it and, best of all, how it felt to do those things.
The story of The Succession is quickly told. Elizabeth I refused to name her successor until she was on her deathbed, if she did even then. The most logical successor was her cousin, James Stuart, then King James VI of Scotland, but his succession was not inevitable. As a result, the whole matter of the succession was the subject of great speculation and political intrigue, with members of Elizabeth’s government and her court engaging in elaborate maneuvering to benefit from the course of events. Fortunes, political power, even lives hung in the balance.
Garrett takes this situation as the background for his novel. Instead of retelling the story of Elizabeth’s last years and James’s succession, he creates a number of characters involved in the story, some of whom were major actors but most of whom were at best bit players. Each character has his or her chance to present one small part of the total story. Garrett makes no effort, however, to put all of these parts together; what he offers is a collage of stories that invites the reader to perform an act of imaginative synthesis, yielding a larger picture of Elizabethan England than any one character could provide. Thus, there are intimate glimpses of Elizabeth herself and also of James. Moving outward from the royal circle, the reader meets William Cecil, Elizabeth’s greatest minister, and his son Robert, who was able to mediate the succession of James so successfully that he secured preferment in the new regime. One also meets the spies they employed in their intrigues, the players who entertained them, and the Roman Catholic priests whom they hounded and executed as political considerations demanded.
Garrett’s method is to shift back and forth rapidly from one perspective to another, often juxtaposing vignettes drawn from different periods in Elizabeth’s reign. Thus, the heartrending narrative of a recusant priest’s last glimpse of his home before his execution is placed next to a glorious account of an old courtier’s memories of the Earl of Leicester’s entertainment for Elizabeth, an entertainment so splendid and expensive that it bankrupted the Earl. One thread of the narrative which works to hold the whole book together is the account, broken up into a number of episodes scattered throughout the book, of William Cecil’s spy, riding from Scotland to London to report on the birth of James. Along the way, to escape detection and to ensure that he will arrive first—thus enabling Cecil to be the one who reports the birth...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)