Full title: Elizabeth and Mary, Cousins, Rivals, Queens
, by Jane Dunn, published by HarperCollins
This joint biography of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots sets out to chart the relationship between the two queens, its roots and dynamics, and the fateful trajectory that inevitably led to one having to sacrifice the other for her own political survival. It is an ambitious project with a facinating and currently very popular subject matter that range across 500-odd hefty pages, and undoubtedly has the potential to be an important book in the ever growing library of Tudor scholarship. It is with a hightened sense of dissapointment that I have to judge it, therefore, to be pretty shit.
It's not an unreadable book, despite its length - it would take an even worse craftsman than Jane Dunn to turn the super drama of the lives of these contemporaries into something really boring. But it is almost completely lacking in new historical scholarship and the underlying thesis is so vague as to be almost imperceptible. As far as I could judge, Dunn's explanation for this complex relationship is that they were very different women, and they never met. No, really. Oh, and also Mary Queen of Scots was not very bright and had lousy advisors.
Not having read widely about Mary before, I was kept entertained by the extensive passages about her early life and upbringing, the politics of her French De Guise family and the detailed discussion (although not detailed enough, and still leaving me with some factual holes in the narrative) of her short lived active reign in Scotland and repeated matrimonial disasters. Still, if Dunn's discussion of Mary is as innovative as of Elizabeth (about whom I have read quite a lot), the best I can say is that she took the most popular available biographies of the two queens and cut and pasted them together into one seamless book. Almost. Whenever she ventures into the realms of the commentary, Dunn endlessly (almost in every chapter) reiterates the vast differences in the two women's upbringing (Mary a pampered French Dophine, Elizabeth a persecuted and orphaned outcast) as a cause of the psychological abyss separating them, and the fact that they never met as the cause of the suspicion and misunderstandings between them.
There is a bit - not enough - of interesting discussion about the political factors that led to Mary being cast adrift and kept as a prisoner in England for almost two decades without any hue and cry: one, that with the death of the French king and the long de facto rule of Catherine de Medici as Queen Mother in France, Mary's political stock in that country became devalued (she was a scion of the De Guise clan who were rivals of the Valois kings for control of France and disliked by Catherine de Medici), and two, that her Scots nobility, once they got their male heir (the future James I/VI) out of her, were content to run their affairs themselves under a system of regency, which was pretty much teh norm in Scotland anyway, as both Mary and her father, James V, were infant monarchs.
Two aspects of the background to the confrontation between the queens are left very much under-explored, and I think in honesty it would take a better historian than Dunn to elucidate on them convincingly, because they are, for me, the crucial mysteries at the bottom of the disaster that followed. First, the circumstances that led to Mary's marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, which eventually cost her her crown and her liberty. Simon Schama brought forward the theory that the queen was abducted by Bothwell, but Dunn steers genteely away from the matter and leaves the whole shrouded in mist. Mary would have had to be criminally insane, or even more of a fool than she emerges to be in the book, to marry the man who was widely suspected of murdering her first husband. It would also have been a very un-christian act, not at all in keeping with the modest Catholic widow who wore weeds for her first huband to her wedding with the second.
Second, and this is something I'm going to have to read up on, why was Elizabeth, or say Elizabeth's Council, so scared of Mary in the first place that they felt she had to die? In all Tudor histories it is constantly reiterated that English Catholics were a loyal, patriotic bunch who hated the Spanish and were not about to trade in their beloved Gloriana for foreign Catholic control. And yet, almost in the same breath, they seem to be always plotting to kill her and put Mary in her place. Very mysterious, and addressed by Dunn only as far as to say that Mary had such astounding personal magnetism that she subverted all who came in contact with her (the hitherto loyal and sensible Sir Nicholas Throckmorton most notably), although this doesn't explain the Duke of Norfolk, who went to the block for conspiring in Mary's favour without ever having seen her in the flesh.
So far, the only thing that's wrong with this book is that it's not very throrough and scholarly - if you know little of the subject and share my somewhat prurient fascination with the unruly Tudors, by all means read it. What really gets my goat, though, is how badly it is crafted. Jane Dunn's grasp of English syntax is about as well developed as a mediocre six former's: she puts commas where they have no business being and leaves them out to make sentences practically incomprehensible. She is not familiar with the power and glory of the semicolon, and dashes, parentheses and colons are an exotic tool she uses but sparingly. Really, don't they have language editors in HarperCollins? Sheesh.
The book is a whopping £20 in hardback - if you want to read it, take it out of the library.