Monday, March 13, 2006

Review: The Virgin Queen

The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age by Christopher Hibbert. Not recommended.

The adjective "Elizabethan" invokes a vision of an era of sumptuous dress, religious strife, European conflict, and the flourishing of the dramatic arts. The Virgin Queen is a study of the ruler for whom the time is named, and her rule, which lasted for an almost-unprecedented 45 years.

Hibbert takes a primarily episodic approach to Elizabeth's life, from her birth as the unwanted daughter of Henry VIII and his second, ill-fated wife, Ann Boleyn. When Henry finally produces a legitimate male heir, Elizabeth is reduced from "princess" to "lady." After her unpopular, Catholic half-sister Mary ascends to the throne and she is vaguely implicated in some plots against the new queen, Elizabeth is imprisoned despite her seeming subservience and her pleas of innocence, devotion, and loyalty.

Raised away from the court by hired nobility and taught by Cambridge scholars, Elizabeth appears to be both demure and autocratic. The important point is "appears," because, while Elizabeth in her correspondence is deferential and in her appearance demure, her peers invariably see her as withdrawn, haughty, and "proud and disdainful"—traits that "much blemished the handsomeness and beauty of her person" (Sir William Sidney). Mary, not unjustifiably paranoid, does not believe in Elizabeth's humility, honesty, or loyalty. Hibbert's portrayal of Elizabeth, who craves the adoration of peers, councilors, and subjects alike, seems to support Mary's assessment.

Elizabeth proves to be arrogant and autocratic, allowing no one to question either her or her rights as ruler. She is keenly aware of the importance of having the support of the populace, which she enjoys in contrast to the despised "Bloody Mary." She ignores the advice of privy council, however, when it suits her, occasionally to the detriment of her popularity.

Hibbert does not explain why or how Elizabeth, kept out of the way during the reigns of her half-brother and half-sister, became so popular. This points to one of the flaws of Hibbert's episodic approach; recounting Elizabeth's life in terms of "Subjects and Suitors" (although not all of them), "Papists and Puritans," "The Queen in her Privy Chamber," "Traitors and Rebels" (again, not all of them), and so forth, veils or distorts much of the historical context of Elizabeth's development and reign. Within one chapter, she may be young at one point and in late middle age at another. With England's changing allegiances and relationships with France and Spain, it is difficult to track what is happening at a given time and why. Elizabeth's most noted accomplishment, England's defeat of the Spanish armada, is covered briefly and superficially, almost as an aside, leaving the reader with the impression that it was happenstance that no one, including Elizabeth or the privy council, had much to do with; it just happened, with little explanation.

The tale of Elizabeth's suitors can be equally confusing. Hibbert describes her negotiations with Henry, Duke of Anjou (later Henry III of France), when he was 20 and, "in fact, twenty years younger than herself." A few pages later, Hibbert discusses her negotiations with his younger brother Francis when Francis is "not yet nineteen" and she is 39, yet it appears that the talks with the older brother occurred first, which would make sense. Even more confusing, the negotiations with younger brother Francis continued until she was 45 (they would be the last hopes of getting her married).

Elizabeth's treatment of religious conflict is glossed over. While Mary is noted for her brutal repression of Protestants, Elizabeth, at least in this biography, is a conservative Protestant who fears and loathes radicals of any kind, Protestant or Catholic. During her reign, repression is focused primarily on the rebellious poor; she is less interested in punishing the wealthy nobility than in grabbing their riches.

As portrayed by Hibbert, Elizabeth is a parsimonious, greedy, emotionally needy woman who wishes to rule absolutely but who cannot make a necessary, definitive decision, such as signing the death warrant for her conniving cousin, Mary Stuart. The privy council, led by Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, and others, devote much of their efforts to manipulating this indecisive autocrat into decisions they want and to making sure that she cannot renege on them—an ironic situation for the woman who says to Burghley's son, "Little man, little man, the word must is not to be used to princes."

There are several weaknesses in addition to the episodic structure. For example, the queen herself is not quoted often enough in key areas, yet Hibbert devotes one-third of a page to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem speculating about how she might have felt during her confinement in the Tower of London.

Most notably, however, the book's subtitle is never explained—neither why the era is "golden" nor why the queen was the "genius" of it. While the biography makes it clear that Elizabeth had a strong personality, as did her parents, the nation's successes seem to have been the work of the privy council under the leadership of Lord Burghley and of adventurers like Sir Walter Ralegh. Elizabeth is not shown even to have played a role in, for example, nurturing the famed playwrights of the time, such as Shakespeare, Marlow, and Beaumont. The subtitle implies that Elizabeth's brilliance inspired a benign, cultured age, while the text shows a woman so cold and petty that, when her best friend and seeming lover Leicester dies, she worries only about controlling his estates and monies, and so indecisive that her own privy councilors avoid working with her whenever possible. The age itself is brutal, with the crowd "disgusted by the spectacle" of a drawing and quartering performed, against tradition, while the victims are still alive.

At best, The Virgin Queen is a brief, superficial biography that leaves the reader hungry for more—more about Burghley, Leicester, Mary Stuart, and others, but not about Elizabeth herself, who somehow becomes a supporting player in her own biography.

Monday, 13 March 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

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