Magazine article The Spectator

The Queen's Business

Magazine article The Spectator

The Queen's Business

Article excerpt

ELIZABETH I: COLLECTED WORKS edited by Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose University of Chicago Press, $43.95, pp. 472 ELIZABETH: APPRENTICESHIP by David Starkey Chatto. 20. nn. 339

Everyone loves Elizabeth I. Poets, playwrights and historians have been singing her praises for more than 400 years. The romantic view of Elizabeth's achievements and personality took shape during her own lifetime. It was given definitive form by William Camden in his Annales, published first in Latin and then in English between 1615 and 1629. Camden's account has been hugely influential. Elizabeth is still usually cast as the star performer in a triumphant drama of national regeneration, the inheritor of chaos and unruly faction whose beneficent reign ushered in a new golden age of harmony and prosperity, the devoted monarch who in return won the devotion of her people, the feisty redhead who bloodied the nose of Johnny Spaniard and opened up the seaways to glorious empire. Vivat Regina!

Elizabeth's hold on the public imagination remains strong. Nowadays her myth is perpetuated by film-makers and television producers. Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett as the Queen, was a rollicking bodiceripper of a movie and a popular hit in 1998. Also successful was this year's Channel 4 television series of the same name, presented by a scowling but frankly besotted David Starkey.

So a new edition of Elizabeth's Collected Works, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in September, would seem timely. It brings together Elizabeth's letters, speeches, prayers and poems. Her eccentric spelling has been modernised and texts in foreign languages have been translated into English. Elizabeth was a thoughtful editor of her own parliamentary speeches; her early drafts and revisions are here given together with later reported and published versions.

Anyone hoping to find lots of salacious gossip or scintillating details of court intrigues will, however, be disappointed. There is no soul-baring here, not a trace of impropriety, scarcely so much as a hint of intimacy. Even her private letters to suitors and probable lovers, such as the Duke of Anjou, are characteristically businesslike.

Nor does Elizabeth speak in one `true' voice throughout her letters and speeches. Ever the politician, she is by turns cajoling and charming, blunt and decisive, wordy and evasive, as occasion and circumstance dictate. Sometimes she is practically incomprehensible. Perhaps her most typical voice is what Christopher Haigh, in his excellent 1988 study of Elizabeth's use of political power, identifies as that of the authentic English nanny. …

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