Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens * Jane Dunn * New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004 * xxiv, 454 pp. * $30.00

The four-hundredth anniversary last year of Elizabeth I's death has inspired a wealth of publications devoted to her life and reign, and Jane Dunn's dual study of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart should find a welcome home among them. Beginning with the birth of Elizabeth in 1533 and concluding with the Armada in the year after Mary's execution in 1587, Dunn explores the difficult relationship that developed over forty years between the two women. Personalities are her focus, and, in particular, she contrasts the self-control and political savvy of Elizabeth I with the self-indulgence and miscalculations of Mary Queen of Scots. Some of these distinctions she attributes to their upbringing: whereas executions, bastardization, and dangerous suitors toughened Elizabeth and honed her political instincts, the pampered world of the French court and doting male protectors ill prepared Mary to govern a very different Scotland. It is a testament to Dunn's authorial skills that the two queens remain a human mixture of foibles and strengths, even if readers will probably favor one over the other.

The chapters layer the events in each queen's life to emphasize their connections and shared players, and the way Dunn overlaps these relationships facilitates smooth transitions from one court to the other as the narrative criss-crosses the Channel. Having published studies of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Mary Shelley, Dunn writes with engaging clarity. She has mined some of the printed primary sources, especially Elizabeth I: Collected Works (edited by Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose), for the vivid details and sense of immediacy that lie at the heart of good historical prose, and the bibliography shows a familiarity with the major biographical studies of key figures. …