The past, so L. P. Hartley, famously wrote, is a foreign country. You must excuse my borrowing the well known quote for my own purposes, I’ve had my nose buried in a double biography at every available opportunity this past week. So effective has the emersion been, that I’ve felt myself stepping across a border with each entry or exit from the pages.
Where was I? In the Elizabethan era, jaunting between England, France and Scotland with two of the most prominent women of the period: Elizabeth herself, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
I thought it would be a simple read, a matter of fluffing out facts I’ve already absorbed. These two are, surely, high on the list of the most dramatized characters from Western history, aren’t they? Aside from the significance of their own lives, they were peripheral characters to other significant adventurers who’ve been the subject of page, screen and stage interpretations. At one time there seemed to be someone striding across the TV screen in tights, padded knickers and a cloak most Saturday afternoons.
With so much written, I didn’t think much more could be added. Elizabeth never married. She fell in love with unsuitable men, may have had affairs with them; wore a ruff, had ginger hair (later replaced with a wig), could be kind, but was mostly masculinely imperious, and signed a lot of death warrants, including one for her cousin Mary.
I think these things can be considered documented facts. I also understand that they allow a variety of interpretations, so that portrayals of Elizabeth can range from evil through all the nuances to benign. Mary’s life can likewise range from gullible victim to foolish martyr. So I opened this book without expecting much. I was prepared to abandon it.
The thing with writing about two such famous, such prominent, characters, is that most readers are likely to know the key events. So Dunn’s preface ensures we’re all starting at the same place. She opens with the end of Elizabeth’s life, on 24th March 1603.
Having been propped for days on cushions on the floor in her chamber, she had been persuaded to take to her bed at last. To her Archbishop of Canterbury, silencing his praise, she said, ‘My lord, the crown which I have borne so long has given enough of vanity in my time.’
Ah, detail. I presume it’s authentic, that somewhere a witness had noted this down. Reading it, my caricature version of the elderly Queen begins to humanise, and wonderfully, I feel a pull I recognise. Is it, can it be, that I’m being hooked?
These words struck to the heart of the tragedy that had befallen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. This same crown had been the focus of Mary’s ambition too; her claim to Elizabeth’s throne was the obsession of her adult life from which so many disasters flowed.
Now I know what the focus will be. How will Dunn work it?
Despite possessing the throne of England, with all the pride of a daughter of King Henry, she was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy. When pressed by Parliament to sign Mary’s death warrant, Elizabeth railed in anguish against the crown that had made this unnatural decision hers alone.
She’s going to explore motivations and consequences.
Sixteen years before Elizabeth’s own natural death in old age, Mary was beheaded at the age of forty-four.
There’s a lot to love about this book: the way Dunn twists back and forth along her timeline to provide context and explanation for key events; her use of short extracts from letters and diaries that really bring characters to life, and the alternative motivations and conclusions she adds to the traditional take on events.
Of Mary, after the murder of her second husband, Dunn writes:
Certainly the extent of her culpability and her state of mind were a much more complicated story than any of the simplistic characterizations that have shadowed her from this moment to the present. Mary was still only twenty-four years old. She was without any real political support or disinterested advice, she had been ill, and was certainly under great duress.
The rumour and gossip soon spread.
As a former Queen of France, Mary might have expected kinder treatment from her traditional allies but in fact it was Elizabeth who emerged at this time as the most sympathetic voice, showing more concern for Mary’s plight than outrage at what the world was whispering.
Glimpses of surprising women, that’s what hooked me. Sorry can’t stop here longer, I’ve got to see how Dunn spins the rest of their stories.