Only Sleeping

Anne Barton

  • England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy by Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson
    Oxford, 348 pp, £19.99, November 2002, ISBN 0 19 818377 1

Once upon a time there was a little girl who, at the age of two, had in some fashion to be told that her father had just cut off the head of the beautiful mother who used to lavish affection on her, and pretty clothes. Shortly afterwards the child learned that, although she retained contact with him, she had been officially repudiated as her father’s daughter, even if she probably had to wait a while before having it explained that this occurred because her mother had been accused both of adultery and incest. She was sexually abused, at 14, after her father died, by a wicked stepfather who was executed a little later (although not for that misdemeanour), subsequently imprisoned by her ugly half-sister in a grim, ill-omened fortress, then placed under guard in a house elsewhere, and threatened at intervals with imminent death. Being both a princess and plucky, she not only survived all this but grew up to become a great and resplendent Queen. Though she never married the Frog Prince of whom she was teasingly fond, or any of her other and more handsome suitors, she lived for a long time in peace and prosperity, governed her kingdom well, repelled its enemies and won the hearts and praise of most of her subjects. She has never really died.

This is at once the stuff of fairytale, and it is not. Certainly no social worker today could be blamed for feeling nervous about taking on such an appallingly victimised adolescent, or feeling pessimistic about the outlook for the case. Even the fact that during her early years the young woman in question was becoming fluent in three languages besides her own, and reading assiduously and learning to write letters in an exquisite italic hand, scarcely counterbalances the accumulation of woes, or suggests that the sufferer might go on to negotiate adulthood with much success, let alone emerge as Elizabeth I – possibly the most politically adroit, intelligent and successful monarch ever to occupy the English throne. Yet, during a long reign of 44 years, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn contrived to steer a middle course in religion between the beliefs of her Catholic subjects on the one hand and clamorous Puritans on the other (the so-called Elizabethan Settlement), evade fatal entanglements, whether marital or military, on the Continent, not to mention plots against her life, see off would-be foreign invaders, and rule on the whole with remarkable acumen, clemency and tact. Although she, too, was obliged to have a few heads cut off, she seems to have done so with reluctance, and usually under extreme provocation combined with pressure from her Council. She also presided over and encouraged a spring flowering of literature and the arts that has never been surpassed. All this despite youthful experiences that might crush the most intrepid fairytale heroine, compounded by the difficulties she later experienced in remaining resolutely unmarried in a society that for years went on pestering her to do the proper thing – select a male consort to help her govern England, and produce a child (preferably male) to ensure the succession.

Elizabeth became legendary even during her lifetime, the centre of a mythology she cannily encouraged and over which she exercised a significant degree of control. What no one, including herself, could possibly have predicted was its longevity: the way she continues four hundred years after her death to conduct, as Michael Dobson and Nicola Watson put it in this engaging book, ‘a posthumous progress through the collective psyche of her country’. Historians, beginning with John Foxe and William Camden in her own time, and extending across the centuries to Patrick Collinson and David Starkey in our own, have examined Elizabeth’s reign from a variety of angles, analysing its various subtle strategies and compromises, attempting to evaluate what it achieved. Dobson and Watson, by contrast, are concerned less with Elizabeth’s factual than with her imaginary history: the story as endlessly retold, fabricated, wildly invented and embellished by various writers, painters and film-makers, and with the changing status and interpretation across time of its central figure. The result is a fascinating cultural history of England itself in terms of its obsession with Anne Boleyn’s resilient daughter, a woman who, in addition to all her other achievements, does seem, if in rather special terms, to be living happily ever after.

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[*] edited by Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman (Palgrave, 280 pp., £47.50 and £15.99, February, 0 333 93083 5).

[†] Chatto, 287 pp., £25, May, 0 701 17476 5.