Saturday, May 8, 2004


By Jane Dunn

Knopf, $30, 480 pages, illus.


The year 1558 was decisive in the lives of both Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor. On April 24 of that year, 15-year-old Mary, queen of Scotland since she was six days old, married the French dauphin, Francois, son of King Henri II, in an opulent pageant at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Seven months later her cousin Elizabeth, 10 years her senior, became queen of England at the death of her half-sister, Mary. She was greeted by cheering crowds when she entered London, dressed in purple velvet and riding a striking grey horse, to claim her throne.

This is the point of departure for Jane Dunn’s new book on the relationship between these two women, each of whom has long fascinated historians and biographers both scholarly and popular. Elizabeth and Mary shared much yet their fates, so closely entwined by kinship and circumstance, were vastly different.

The author uses the women’s dealings with each other as a way of exploring how and why Mary was to become the tragic, doomed Queen of Scots while Elizabeth evolved into England’s (and the world’s) revered and loved, long-reigning Virgin Queen.

One circumstance that Mary and Elizabeth shared was that, to quote the book’s opening line, “These were dangerous times.” The violent paroxysms of religious dissent that had convulsed England for 25 years were not over and politics, too, was in flux.

The absolute power of royalty was beginning to be shared with men ambitious and ruthless enough to work their way up, to grab influence where they could. What had not changed, though, was the people’s confidence in the divinely ordained right of kings to rule and, with this, the urgency of determining legitimate lines of succession.

Henry VIII, with his multiple wives and tendency to disinherit and then reinstate children, had left a murky situation and a legacy of violence. Legitimacy could be interpreted to suit a variety of purposes, ambitions and religious preference. Conspiracies, plots and plans abounded. The losers paid not just with the loss of power but, often, with their lives.

Females carried a special burden in this volatile world. They were viewed with suspicion and even hostility as rulers, and were considered as property to be used as bargaining chips by others in the international marriage sweepstakes.

As the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, who had married the Scottish king, James IV, Mary was Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed and, if Elizabeth were to be considered illegitimate (as she indeed had been for part of her childhood), next in line for the throne of England after the death of “Bloody Mary.”

Mary Stuart was also Catholic and thus attractive to those who hoped to maintain that faith in England. It was Mary’s unwillingness to relinquish this claim to the English throne that made impossible the friendly relationship that both Elizabeth and Mary claimed to desire throughout their long correspondence.

The author makes much of differences in the personalities, characters and upbringings of the two women to explain their divergent fates. Mary was universally described as a woman of great personal magnetism, beauty and charm.

She had grown up, from the age of six, at the French court, the intended bride of the young dauphin, a favorite of the king, loved but also pampered and indulged and, at the same time, exiled from the dutiful mother she adored who had remained in Scotland as regent.

Elizabeth, too, suffered the deprivation of a mother; Anne Boleyn was beheaded when Elizabeth was just three. But her childhood was far different from Mary’s, fraught with uncertainty as stepmothers came and went and her status in the royal court changed. The death of her “matchless and most kind father,” when she was 14, was followed by a decade of “uncertainty and at times extreme danger.”

During her sister’s reign she came under suspicion of conspiracy and was confined to the Tower of London for a few terrifying months. Handling herself with courage and care, she avoided disaster.

Both women were well-educated, intelligent and of strong emotion. But Mary never learned the hard lessons of self-reliance and discernment that Elizabeth did through her long period of uncertainty about her future.

Whereas Mary sought stability, and later romance and passion, through alliances with strong men, Elizabeth learned to trust herself (while also attracting devoted and intelligent advisers and friends) and decided upon the, for the time, extraordinary course of remaining unmarried throughout her life.

The author, also the biographer of Mary Shelley and Antonia White, and of the relationship between the Bloomsbury sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, brings sensitivity, sympathy and analytic power to her examination of Mary and Elizabeth. Her account is based on a rich selection of contemporary sources.

There are, however, some problems with the way she tells her story. The chronology is jumbled and not always clear. Time and again, she jumps ahead, referencing an event that has not yet occurred, or she goes backward to pick up missing pieces of information. When combined with the huge cast of characters and the wealth of complicated information she deals with, this makes the book confusing.

In addition, the retention of old English spelling for some (but not all) citations is an annoyance. And the author’s very frequent reiteration of her key conclusions is wearisome.

Mary’s “fatal detachment from her subjects,” her reliance on inappropriate men, her pampered upbringing, her love of physical exercise, her recklessness, her charm, are mentioned again and again as are Elizabeth’s caution, her devotion to her people and sense of herself as queen, the difficulties of her uncertain childhood, her fear of rebellion, and even the fact that she never traveled outside England.

Despite these criticisms, though, what one takes away from “Elizabeth & Mary” is renewed fascination with these two women and with their difficult, danger-filled lives, the complexities of which can withstand multiple retellings. One might contest the author’s assertion that for each, the other was the central relationship of their lives, but still, their connection provides an intriguing prism for considering them and their times.

One might contest, also, the idea that by insisting that she was dying for her faith (rather than for participation in a succession of foolhardy schemes to put her on the English throne) Mary succeeded in crafting her reputation as a martyr.

That may have been true for a time, but from the vantage point of this century Mary appears extraordinarily foolish, stubborn rather than stalwart. She evokes sympathy but little admiration.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, consistently fascinates. Her tolerant approach to religious matters, her love of her people and her willingness and ability to set aside her own personal desires for the good of her role as sovereign and, therefore, of her country make her a compelling figure.

Even her decision to carry out the sentence of death against her cousin spoke to this devotion to duty. Elizabeth, we are told, always found it hard to be decisive and never more so than when called upon to sign the death warrant for Mary.

Hearing that the sentence against Mary had been carried out, she raved with fury, sending the secretary of state responsible for Mary’s execution to the Tower (he was released a year later). The insecurities and foibles revealed in Elizabeth’s dealings with Mary only serve to underscore her remarkable accomplishments.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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