Saturday, November 11, 2006

Book Review : Elizabeth & Mary - Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn (HarperCollins 2003)

Many fine biographies have been written about both Elizabeth and Mary in recent years - those which spring to mind include those of Alison Plowden and Anne Somerset about Elizabeth; Antonia Fraser, John Guy and Jenny Wormald about Mary; and separate bigraphies of Elizabeth and Mary by Alison Weir.

This is not a dual biography. Instead, it is an analysis of a relationship of two cousins who never met, yet whose fates were deeply intertwined. At the same time, it compares and contrasts the queens, and seeks to undestand why the reign of Mary, which had started out so promisingly, turned out so badly, whilst that of Elizabeth, faced at first with insuperable challenges, transcended them all.

The parallels are striking. Both were women who came to the throne in male-dominated societies where the queen regnant was expected to take a husband in order to help her govern. Both became enmired in sexual scandal and murder. Both had great intelligence and strong, charismatic personalities which marked them out as natural leaders and inspired intense loyalty in their followers.

Yet Jane Dunn gets beneath the surface and draws surprising, often breathtaking contrasts. Elizabeth's childhood was characterised by the "transience and powerlessness" of women such as her mother Anne Boleyn, her various stepmothers and especially Catherine Parr to whom she was closely attached and who died in childbirth. On the other hand, Mary was surrounded in childhood by powerful women such as her own mother, the Regent of Scotland Mary of Guise, Catherine de Medici and the mistress of Henri II Diane de Poitiers.

Mary's first adolescent relationship was her secure and loving betrothal and marriage to childhood sweetheart Francis II of France. Elizabeth, on the other hand, attracted the attentions of Thomas Seymour, husband of Catherine Parr, in a dangerously flirtacious relationship which resulted in Elizabeth's expulsion from Catherine's household, and ultimately his marital advances resulted in his execution. From an early age, Elizabeth realised that relationships were loaded with danger.

How did this affect them in later life? Essentially, Elizabeth's mastery of her emotions enabled her to rule successfully as the Virgin Queen. Mary, however, married for love twice - both terrible mistakes. When scandal struck at the court of Elizabeth through the death of Amy Robsart, wife of her favourite Robert Dudley, Elizabeth stood firm, banished Dudley from court and ordered an enquiry. However, when Mary's husband Darnley was murdered in the Kirk o'Fields, there was no inquest, no punishment of the guilty - indeed, Mary married prime suspect Bothwell shortly afterwards, the single act which had the greatest bearing on her losing the trust of the Scottish people and ultimately her throne.

One other significant contrast stands out. Elizabeth was fortunate - shrewd one might say - in her choice of advisors. Despite occassional lapses, the Cecils, Dudley, Walsingham and the others were loyal, constant and highly skilled. The contribution of the Cecils especially in turning England into a modern Nation State is incalculable. Mary, however, was not so fortunate. She looked for allies at the treacherous Scottish court, and found her dubious half-brother Moray, the unstable Darnley, the power-crazed Bothwell. There were people of talent and integrity at the court, such as Maitland whom Mary sent as Ambassador to Elizabeth, but they were few.

However, these superficial comparisons do not do justice to the depth and perception of this excellent book. Dunn constantly uncovers small but telling comparisons and contrasts, often unexpected. On top of this is overlaid their relationship carried out exclusively through letters and ambassadors, as outside the pages of Schiller, they never met. Together, they cast startling illumination on the contrasting fortunes of this island's most romantic female monarchs.

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