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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Two queens and their ruling passions

ELIZABETH AND MARY: COUSINS, RIVALS, QUEENS By Jane Dunn, HarperCollins, £ 13.50

Elizabeth I, born of desire and ambition, raised amidst uncertainty and bloodshed, was always first a ruler. A brilliant mind, she embodied the shrewd monarch, dependant on common sense and practicality, relying on her people for her power in times when the monarch still ruled by divine right. Her progressiveness was the product of inclination as much as necessity.

Mary Queen of Scots, a queen from the cradle, nurtured in the decadent splendour of a distant court, chose her mantle of a woman before that of a monarch. The treasured ward of France and future queen learnt her charm from the very people who were to abandon her. Back amongst the more swarthy Scots, she was forever to be a foreigner, alienated from her people till romanticism made her plight legendary. Childlike, she was to hanker after what was never hers until her ultimate destruction.

Elizabeth and Mary is a saga of two clashing matriarchs ruling neighbouring empires. The richness of this slice of history chosen by Jane Dunn offers a wealth of drama that can be explored extensively, one that has captured the imagination of people for 400 years. Feminine guile and political manoeuvring, emotional outbursts and poised diplomacy make for almost racy reading.

Elizabeth and Mary,” writes Dunn in her preface, “is about the relationship between two queens, one that seemed, during their lifetimes, to evolve a life of its own.” The lack of any first-hand information — as the princesses had never met, according to Dunn — was the cause of the larger-than-life image each occupied in the imagination of the other, “becoming something superhuman”.

If Elizabeth’s childhood taught her that life was cheaply lost, and gave her little hope of ever becoming a ruler, it also created a hungry desperation for stability and an acute awareness of the fragility of her own power. The lives of her mother, stepmothers, brother and sister ended in violence. The young princess herself had to suffer imprisonment by her sister. Her legitimacy was in constant question and her right to succession suspect. After 25 years of uncertainty, she had no real reason to be smug in the knowledge that her right to the throne of England was ordained by god.

Adored since infancy, removed from the domestic upheavals her mother braved, Mary’s emotional state could not have been more contrary. She was born to be a queen, having been crowned after her father’s sudden death when she was just five days old. When she was five years old, she was betrothed to the Dauphin of France, François. She had no reason to fear she would ever be anything but a revered sovereign.

There were thus a fundamental difference between the lives of these two remarkable women. The “Good Queen Bess” left the legacy of an astute rule spanning 45 years. Mary is, for the most part, remembered for her colourful, sinister love-life and an obsessive desire to unseat her cousin. Her actions rarely demonstrated any appreciation of the value of the Scottish crown that was rightfully hers.

That there was a deeper emotional connection between the two, despite all odds, is clear from the evidence of Elizabeth’s anguish at having to behead her cousin and fellow queen. This went beyond fear of political ramifications and the dent it would create in the absolute power of monarch, which mortals could not interfere with. Mary may have ceaselessly tried to remove her rival, but she also turned to her in her hour of need. Both moving communicators, they kept in touch through the worst of times.

Dunn’s book is not a history. She does draw in detail the life of both queens, but she leaves out their politics, in so far as it does not have a direct bearing on the central relationship. The author could have incorporated some of this. Dunn concentrates on the relationship — through letters and emissaries — between the two, their romantic associations, filial bonds and religious leanings. She explains this approach, writing in her preface: “I come to this book as a biographer, not a historian, believing that character largely drives events, explains motivations, and connects us to each other through centuries.” But while Mary’s rule is of less significance to an understanding of her character, so much of Elizabeth is to be understood through her public policy, not only her persona.

The work is structured chronologically, but the author unfortunately repeats the central points time and again, as the issues recur. Elizabeth and Mary would benefit much from a tighter editing. But adding value to the volume is a selection of illustrations of the neighbouring queens through the years, as well as close family. A chronology and a family tree — showing clearly the closeness of the blood ties between Elizabeth and all her challengers — are also useful tools.

Dunn sees Elizabeth as the orthodox reminder of England’s past glory, while Mary, “valuing pleasure over duty”, is seen as the one who has made the “modern sacrifice”. But this is to get lost in the romanticism of Mary’s charm and passion for life. Elizabeth stood her ground in her decision to rule — and that too without the acceptability-winning appendage of a husband — in a time when, as Dunn repeatedly points out, a woman monarch was seen as an aberration. She sacrificed her true love, Robert Dudley, choosing instead a lonely life, wedded to power. Her perseverance is a testament to her strength and conviction that she could prove her worth. She was a feminist much before the term ceased to be an insult. Mary was a victim of her own headstrong passions, and that cannot be hailed as any kind of sacrifice.

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