Saturday, November 04, 2006

Book Review : Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1991)

Historians are sometimes dazzled by the brilliance of the reign of Astrea, the Virgin Queen, and produce works which tend to hagiography. Others, on the other hand, seek to avoid this trap by emphasising Elizabeth's many faults and shortcomings as a human being. Anne Somerset has successfully steered a course betwixt the Scylla and Charibdis of Elizabethan biography and produced a work that is startling both in its clarity and balance.

She fully recognises Elizabeth's achievement in transforming a realm that was financially destitute and riven with turmoil at the death of Mary into a stable, well-run modern nation-state. She acknowledges that Elizabeth was astute in her choice of the Cecils as her chief advisors, and lucky to be surrounded by so many courtiers of ability. Yet she also does not fail to emphasise her overdependence on favourites such as Leicester and the appalling Essex, or the ambiguity of her marriage negotiations, or the decline of her realm in her latter years when taxation caused by wars in Iterland and the Netherlands cut deep. As a person, Elizabeth comes alive as intelligent, imperious, shrewd yet also devious, bad-tempered, vacillating and unreliable.

All of this is set out in a clear and limpid style which transports the reader through the complexities of the period with consumate ease. Without doubt, this book is a stand-out amongst the many biographies of England's greatest monarch.

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