Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

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9780002571500: Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

This is the first biography of the fateful relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. It was the defining relationship of their lives and marked the intersection of the great Tudor and Stuart dynasties. At its core were their rival claims to the throne of England.

Distinguished biographer Jane Dunn reveals an extraordinary story of two queens ruling in one isle, both embodying opposing qualities of character, ideals of womaliness and divinely ordained kingship. Theirs is a drama of sex and power, recklessness, ambition and political intrigue, with a rivalry that could only be resolved by death.

As regnant queens in an overwhelmingly masculine world they were deplored for their femaleness, compared unfavourably with each other, and courted by the same men. By placing this dynamic and ever-changing relationship at the centre of the book, Dunn throws new light and meaning on the complexity of their natures. She reveals an Elizabeth revolutionary in her insistence on ruling alone and inspired in her use of celibacy as a political tool, yet deeply feeling and more sympathetic than the usual picture of the virgin queen. Mary, too, is not the romantic victim of history but a courageous adventurer with a reckless heart, and a magnetic influence over men and women alike. Vengeful against her enemies and the more ruthless of the two, she was untroubled by plotting Elizabeth’s murder. Elizabeth, however, was in anguish at having to sanction Mary’s death warrant for treason.

Jane Dunn brings her skills as a biographer to bear on history’s two most charismatic queens. Working almost exclusively from contemporary letters and writings, she lets them speak to us across more than 400 years, their voices and responses surprisingly familiar to our own, their characters vivid, by turns touching and terrible. The death in 1603 of Elizabeth, our greatest English queen, was to mark the end of the Tudors and the posthumous triumph of Mary, whose son, James I united the English and Scottish thrones under a Stuart king.

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Review:

Jane Dunn's double biography Elizabeth and Mary takes as its rich and explosive subject matter the ultimately fatal relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Throughout much of the second half of the 16th century, these two women found themselves queens of their kingdoms and locked in a battle for possession of the British Isles, which only ended with Mary's eventual downfall and execution at Elizabeth's hands in 1586.

As Dunn points out in her meticulous and compelling recreation of the complex relationship between the two women, "from that one act of regicide, a queen killing a fellow queen, has spun a mythology of justification, romance, accusation, and blame that retains its force right to the present day." Her approach attempts to avoid myth and romance and understand the complex bond that existed between the two women. Elizabeth, the apparent victor, "was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy", while Mary was pursued by claims of sexual excess and immersion in murderous plots against husbands and enemies, variously seen as "a wronged Madonna or a murderous jezebel."

Dunn elegantly follows the ups and downs of both monarchs as they strive for political power. Mary's tumultuous reign as Queen of Scotland is particularly well handled, as is Elizabeth's agonised vacillation over her decision to execute Mary. In the end, death triumphed over both, and ensured that each was "elevated to an idealised majesty" for very different reasons. Dunn has marshalled an impressive body of evidence that never overwhelms this psychologically nuanced account of these two remarkable women. --Jerry Brotton

Review:

From the reviews of Jane Dunn’s previous books:

‘Dunn writes with captivating elegance and piercing intelligence, is tender,
scrupulous, ironic and worldly.’ Richard Davenport-Hines, Independent

‘Jane Dunn is one of our best biographers.’ Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times

‘Jane Dunn has that sine qua non of the true biographer, an eye for significant detail and the power to fit it into a larger pattern.’ Richard Holmes, The Times

‘Jane Dunn is a gifted biographer, teasing out subtle meanings and connections that add up to a rich depth of portraiture.’ Michelle Roberts, Independent on Sunday

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