April 2004

Rebecca Graber

nonfiction

Elizabeth and Mary by Jane Dunn

Elizabeth and Mary is not, as author Jane Dunn emphasizes, strictly a dual biography. The drama unfolds amidst competition between Catholicism and Protestantism, between France and Spain and the near-destitute England. And as Dunn so deliciously chronicles, nowhere was the zero-sum nature of the game more dramatically realized than in the contest for the English throne and the mutually antagonistic relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

To Protestant England, Elizabeth was a prudent, effective leader and distinctly English personality, revered despite her femininity and lifelong refusal to marry. To Catholics, Elizabeth was a pretender to the throne, daughter of the heretic Henry VIII and his mistress, an offence to nature through her presumption to rule as a lone female monarch and her suppression of the true faith. Her Catholic cousin Mary, whose claim to rule was stronger if Elizabeth's birth was deemed illegitimate, was considered the best weapon against England and its religion.

Using a wealth of sources -- many of which are excerpted in the original early modern English -- the author deconstructs the mythologies surrounding the monarchs: one, a Virgin Queen married to her people; the other, a martyr for her country and her faith. The result is a book rich in humanizing details, with a more compelling story than any novelist or screenwriter could hope to conceive.

Dunn spends a great deal of time showing how the queens' adult behavior was shaped by their sharply differing childhood experiences. In England, Elizabeth's witness of the turmoil of her half-sister "Bloody" Mary Tudor's reign, and her own temporary imprisonment, impressed upon her the precariousness and sanctity of the monarchy, as well as the divisive potential of religion and the formidable prejudices against female rulers. Elizabeth thus came to rely upon equivocation in her diplomacy, to allow relative religious freedom, and to guard her crown at the expense of marital alliance or personal desires - particularly her unconsummated love for Lord Robert Dudley, as is elegantly and sympathetically chronicled by the author.

Mary, on the other hand, had been reared in the French courts by her powerful Guise uncles. In being denied lessons in statecraft and continually reminded of her entitlement to the English throne, she grew to rely upon familiar advisors and her substantial personal charms in matters of politic, though she would prove to be as courageous as any man when circumstances warranted. The author also toys with the idea of Mary being manic-depressive, an interesting interpretation. But most important, perhaps, is that Mary lacked personal attachment to Scotland, viewing it as her birthright but not her homeland.

Elizabeth famously played with flirtation as a diplomatic ploy, unwilling to cede sole authority over her country. All the while, her advisors (particularly the ever-suffering William Cecil, lively enough to warrant a biography of his own), pleaded with her to marry. Mary harbored no such aversion to marriage, committing the act three times. In fact, it was Mary's second marriage that marked the beginning of her downfall. She fell desperately in love with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who held an iron-clad claim to the English throne (though Dunn does not think this contributed to Mary's decision to wed), marrying him against Elizabeth's express wishes. A year later, the union had soured, Darnley was dead, and Mary was married to the prime suspect in his murder.

It was this last scandal that would prove her undoing. Faced with uprisings, Mary was forced to seek refuge in England under the protection -- and control -- of her cousin and fellow queen. She was unable to resist partaking in conspiracies against her benefactor - in one case, even willing Scotland to Spain -- and was eventually executed for one of her plots.

Dunn shows some of her strongest insight in these final chapters. She depicts Elizabeth as tortured by the prospect of committing regicide against a fellow female monarch, but recognizing the need to eliminate Mary as the embodiment of foreign Catholic threats. Mary is compassionately presented as a fallen woman, who in her desperation to cling to her destiny as uniter of Scotland and England resorted to wild intrigues when she could not obtain her desired audience with Elizabeth. Dunn prevents the tale from descending into maudlin stereotypes, showing with deft precision the unbearable situation in which these two queens found themselves - rivals even as they stood together as female monarchs, cousins who sought solidarity when the truth was that only one could survive.

Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn
Knopf Publishing Group
ISBN 0375408983
480 pages