Saturday, November 04, 2006

Book Review : The Elizabethan Quartet by Alison Plowden (Various publishers 1971, 1973, 1977, 1999)

The life of Elizabeth is examined by Alison Plowden in four books written over a 28 year period between 1971 and 1999. In "The Young Elizabeth" she takes a look at the difficult early life of Elizabeth from her birth to Ann Boleyn, who was already falling from favour with Henry VIII, until her accession to the throne. In the second volume, "Danger to Elizabeth", Plowden examines the Catholic threat to Elizabeth's throne - primarily through William Allen and his academy at Douai, and though his protegees, Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons.

The third volume, "Marriage with my Kingdom", looks in detail at the various courtships of Elizabeth, from Thomas Seymour's pursuit of her as a young teenager, to her final, most serious courtship with her "frog", the Duc d'Alencon, and of course her long-running relationship with Robert Dudley. The final book, "Elizabeth Regina" looks at the final years of her reign, starting with the glory of the defeat of the Armad, through the self-immolation of Essex, to her death in 1603.

Plowden writes fine, balanced prose - admirably clear, with the occassional well-turned metaphor adding light. Her sentences flow with rhythm and images of great, haunting beauty, as demonstrated below

"Elizabeth has said repeatedly that she had no desire to live longer than would be for her subjects' good, and now it seemed as if she felt her task was done. She had outlived her century, outlived nearly all her friends, outlived her usefulness to her beloved country and she was very tired... She lay speechless and semi-conscious, her eyes open, one finger in her mouth, the power flowing out of her, the great golden dangerous world in which she had played so valiant a part fading into darkness"

Plowden obviously admires Elizabeth, but is not uncritical. An argument with Essex reflects little merit on either side. Her vaccillations and tergiversations frustrate. Yet the overarching theme is how Elizabeth, through her manipulation her courtiers, her suitors and of Parliament, managed to avoid seemingly inevitable religious conflict and international strife. Her reign was 44 years of domestic peace and only limited involvement in overseas military adventures. The legacy she left to James was a stable - if not prosperous - realm.

Plowden's books are beautifully written, factually precise and critically acute. They are a fitting testimony to the life of England's greatest monarch.

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