Books: The Great Rivalry That Had to End; Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. by Jane Dunn (HarperCollins, Pounds 20). Reviewed by Zannah Lewis

Article excerpt

Byline: Zannah Lewis

The journey from historical figure to great female icon would seem necessarily to be a bloody and brutal one.

In the recent television series, Great Britons, two women shared that path and that iconic status: the tragic 20th-century princess, Diana, and the Renaissance Queen Elizabeth I - who survived one of the most dangerous and nefarious ages in history.

Their iconography, however, has been mapped out quite differently. We are quite confident today in our perceptions of Good Queen Bess.

Strong and intellectual, married to her people, she is in her own famous words on the eve of war with Spain, a queen with 'the body of a weak and feeble woman . . . but the heart and stomach of a king'.

In contrast, we are still arguing about Diana; her fallibilities and her strengths. For Diana's forerunner - the mother, if you will, of all slippery, ambiguous female icons - we can turn to Mary Queen of Scots. Cousin to Elizabeth I, mother of James VI of Scotland and I of England, she has been has been Delilah and Jezebel all within her own lifetime. She has been denounced as a murderess, an adulteress and a manipulative witch who cast spells on men to win them over to her side.

And Jane Dunn has rehabilitated her as a tragic heroine and a rape victim to become 'one of the most wronged women in history'.

In the year that celebrates the 400th anniversary of the Union of the Crowns and the accession of James VI of Scotland to the British throne, Dunn's extensive dual biography pits one woman against the other in Elizabeth And Mary:Cousins, Rivals, Queens.

It betrays a fascination with, and exoneration of, the woman John Knox condemned as a whore, portraying a Scotland that even Good Queen Bess would have failed to tame, never mind a young woman in her 20s, educated in France and with love on her mind.

Dunn is generous to Elizabeth, portraying a more human queen than we are accustomed to seeing - alternately jealous of, then shocked by, the glamorous young woman north of the border who seemed to entrance even the English officials she sent to keep an eye on her.

Alongside this less conventional portrait is a picture of Mary which may surprise those used to the tragic heroine/conniving witch dichotomy of ages past.

Mary, we learn, was the young woman English courtiers would have liked for their queen, her Catholicism notwithstanding. To begin with, she was everything Elizabeth wasn't: intelligent without being intellectual, pleasingly confident and eager to do the right thing. Mary, unlike her cousin, was more or less born a queen; Elizabeth had to fight to maintain her legitimacy and had spent time in the Tower on the orders of her half-sister, 'Bloody Mary'.

Elizabeth toyed with Robert Dudley, refusing offers of marriage from important heads of state while Mary, virtuous and mindful of her regal status, was eager to find a suitable partner and produce an heir. …