The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 27, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) We think of Queen Elizabeth I as ‘Gloriana’: the most powerful English woman in history. We think of her reign (1558-1603) as a golden age of maritime heroes, like Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Francis Drake, and of great writers, such as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. But what was it actually like to live in Elizabethan England? If you could travel to the past and walk the streets of London in the 1590s, where would you stay? What would you eat? What would you wear? Would you really have a sense of it being a glorious age? And if so, how would that glory sit alongside the vagrants, diseases, violence, sexism and famine of the time?

In this book Ian Mortimer answers the key questions that a prospective traveller to late sixteenth-century England would ask. Applying the groundbreaking approach he pioneered in his bestselling Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, the Elizabethan world unfolds around the reader.

He shows a society making great discoveries and winning military victories and yet at the same time being troubled by its new-found awareness. It is a country in which life expectancy at birth is in the early thirties, people still starve to death and Catholics are persecuted for their faith. Yet it produces some of the finest writing in the English language and some of the most magnificent architecture, and sees Elizabeth’s subjects settle in America and circumnavigate the globe. Welcome to a country that is, in all its contradictions, the very crucible of the modern world

Thoughts: It isn’t too often that I end up reviewing nonfiction anymore.Β  But sometimes a book comes along with such a sufficiently interesting concept that I can’t help but take a bit of a break from the norm and give it a go.

Mortimer takes a look at Elizabethan England through the amusing concept of a travel guide for time travelers, and believe me, it works.The very first chapter starts out like you’re sightseeing in some of the more well-known cities and towns. Walk down this street. On your left, you’ll see this. Walk 50 feet and take a right and you’ll see that. It’s an interesting set-up, and it works very well for getting the reader into the right mindset. It brings history to life, puts you in the centre of it, and makes it something other than that standard stories you read in textbooks.

This is the sort of history that I wanted to learn in school, and for years didn’t even know existed as a study. I couldn’t bring myself to be interested in the politics and wars and the goings-on of nobility and their lives. I wanted to learn how everyone else lived. I wanted to learn how people dressed, what food they ate, what sort of jobs they did, and what the everyday lives of the majority were. And that’s exactly what this book gives. It doesn’t completely discount the role of royalty and nobility, and doesn’t pass over the politics of the day, because those things were as important then as they are now, but it gives a very complete picture of life at the time, right down to period foods and medicines. No matter what your particular field of interest, there’s something in here that will catch your eye and fascinate you. It’s the nitty-gritty detail that makes history complete, after all, and that’s exactly what I’m interested in when it comes to accounts of the past.

But beyond my own personal interest in this sort of history, I found enjoyment in this book from the perspective of a writer. Contained within this book’s pages are innuerable facts that add colour and detail to not just historical fiction, but also have potential to enrich fantasy and speculative fiction. As a writer, I knew pretty much from the beginning that this was a book I would use again and again when fact-checking, when seeking inspiration, or just when looking for something to add a bit more realism to my own fiction. It’s an invaluable resource in that regard, and I plan to use a good amount of what I learned in here. People interested in other forms of historical recreation, such as the SCA, might find this book of particular interest as well.

This was my first exposure to Mortimer’s work, and knowing that he also wrote The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England makes me want to get that book too, for further research and inspiration. And probably any other books that he does in this series, too (I might just bribe him to write The Time Traveler’s Guide to Victorian England, for instance). His writing is easy to follow without being simplistic, and though it expects you to have at least a small background in the period, still context is given and plenty of explanations follow, making this an accessible book for those who don’t know anything about Elizabethan England beyond the fact that there was a Queen named Elizabeth. While I can’t say for certain that this is a book that should grace the shelves of hardcore historians, it’s definitely something that should have its place for amateur historians, and for those interested, as I was, in taking inspiration for speculative fiction.

(Book provided for review by the publisher.)