Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

The Elizabethans

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

The Elizabethans

Article excerpt

The Elizabethans. A.N. Wilson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. $30, hardcover, 432 pp.

Historian John Lukacs has suggested that only writers of fiction pen memorable monographs: A.N. Wilson's The Elizabethans would confirm the affirmation. His detailed portraits of key figures of the period are compelling-Elizabeth, of course, but also Raleigh, Walsingham, Burghley, Leicester, Mary Stuart, Drake, Sidney, and Gascoigne, as well as others less well known but equally brilliantly rendered. With each chapter, Wilson explores this monumental period through their eyes and experiences.

Wilson's most forceful claim that the world created by the Elizabethans did not come to a close until our times permeates each chapter. His book in fact connects the inspiration of Elizabeth's reign and her times to the modern world most convincingly and comprehensively. "We have lived to see the Elizabethan world come to an end" begins the preface (I); only by marking its close, suggests the author, can we accurately gauge its historical value and implications.

Wilson's research remains solidly anchored in the age in question, though regular references are made to the long-lasting effects of events. Interestingly, the book begins with a thorough discussion of the "Irish difficulty," which isn't a frequent prelude to Elizabethan history, though indeed its undercurrents permeate Tudor history. Wilson builds an historical view of Ireland, dating from Henry VIII to shortly after Elizabeth's reign, outlining the major setbacks for the Irish from Henry's Reformation tactics to the Irish "wild man" narratives that would proliferate later in the century. Wilson's point of entry to the monograph is therefore a most unflattering one for the Tudors, but it constructs the foundation for the pre-colonial mindset that had begun to evolve. This early chapter prepares the reader for "The New World" chapter that follows, as the writer begins to focus more closely on the expected, such as the Reformation, the new learning, and, interestingly, the life and library of the Queen's astrologer, Dr. John Dee. Attention is also paid to the difficulty of acting as female regent post-John Knox. As proof of the misogynistic air du temps, Wilson quotes Deputy Sir John Perrot: "Silly woman, now she shall not curb me, she shall not rule me serve a base bastard piss kitchen woman" (9). Elizabeth, Wilson points out, was smart enough to take Knox's criticism of women monarchs intelligently; only by marrying would she resign power over England to a foreign prince, yet an unmarried, unrivaled Elizabeth would deliver that power unto herself (38).

Parts Two and Three of the book focus on the 1570s and 1580s, respectively. Effects felt in England from the major events of the 1570s, especially the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, are approached with careful attention to detail regarding the complicated events themselves, but also with close consideration of the people involved, their motivations and brutal machinations. Sir Phillip Sidney's presence in Paris, in Walsingham's ambassador's residence on the days of the massacre, becomes Wilson's justification to write of the personal, of Sidney's friends dragged from the safety of their homes and violently murdered in the streets. Ramifications of the event are related by another Englishman, Timothy Bright, who was also at the embassy in Paris and who would later produce a shortened version of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Wilson notes, "he was one of the many Englishmen who had reason to regard Foxe's book-ghoulish as it may seem to modern taste-to be no more than an accurate account of the Counter-Reformation, red in tooth and claw" (111). The perspective Wilson provides in each of these historical reckonings is masterful; one gains a sense of the scope of the tragedy that was St. Bartholomew's Day, and of the absolute perfidy and barbarity of its perpetrators.

For the present reader, Wilson's discussion of the 1580s is among the very best available today. …

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