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by Malcolm Forbes


The Montréal Review, September 2012


"The Elizabethans" by A. N. Wilson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)


'To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious to His revealed will and approved ordinance and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.'

So ran one particular rant of the sixteenth-century Scottish clergyman, John Knox. The English novelist and award-winning biographer, A. N. Wilson, compiles this and many other rich quotations and anecdotes in The Elizabethans, his hugely impressive chronicle of a fascinating era. With Knox, as with all pertinent figures and events of the age, Wilson goes on to give a compelling potted history. He singles out Knox's revolutionary, often cranky, views and weighs them, before informing us of their consequences. Never afraid to label, Wilson calls Knox a 'clever controversialist', but the epithet could just as well fit Wilson himself, such is his occasional wry, iconoclastic stance. It is this approach that makes The Elizabethans, if not a definitive account of the period, at least a rousing and deeply engaging one.

Wilson begins with a 'Difficulty' which reads as a caveat, and one that he repeats later in case we have forgotten. At no point should we read his portrait of this age as an apologia for the many iniquities that plagued it and, to some extent, defined it. It might have been an age of Renaissance humanism but at the same time The Elizabethans switched from a policy of persuasion to coercion to colonise Ireland, they profited from selling West African slaves to the Portuguese, and they inflicted abject torture on Roman Catholic recusants. Wilson balances light and shade and urges leniency instead of condemnation; we should look at Elizabethan 'crimes' in perspective and view the whole picture as painted by the likes of A. L. Rowse, not just the lurid detail focused on by contemporary historians.

Wilson is king of the single-volume history, and The Elizabethans follows the compendious and fact-filled example of 2002's The Victorians. Again, both Queen and country are his subjects. Describing the monarch, he lingers for a while on physiognomy (her aquiline nose, the 'Tudor Welsh lightness of skin', her eyes 'large-pupilled') and with regard character is as keen to enumerate her plus points - a polyglot, formidably clever but also, like her father, fiendishly manipulative and gifted with a shrewd political intelligence - as well as her faults: she was capricious, parsimonious, prone to tantrums, and someone who preferred to watch bear-baiting than stage-plays. Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, shared Knox's misogynistic views and dismissed her as 'a base bastard piss kitchen woman' (the Pope also declaring her a bastard). As with the Knox slur, Elizabeth took action, ruling with such might as to prove her male detractors wrong. This meant ruling as if she were a man. Addressing the land forces assembled at Tilbury in anticipation of the Spanish Armada in 1588, she said, 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of King of England too'.

The book is arranged chronologically, so we follow Elizabeth from young ruler to Virgin Queen in four sections. Wilson also brings alive notable personages from her inner circle, her court and beyond. We learn of the political intrigue practised by close advisors: Secretary William Cecil (equipped with 'Polonius manners') and spymaster Francis Walsingham (whose spy networks and methods of torture have never been forgotten because many of his victims have become saints and martyrs); Richard Hakluyt, the Elizabethan 'geographer of brilliance' - geography incorporating demography, anthropology and a latter-day sociology; Walter Raleigh, who decided that Virginia, the first English colony in the New World, should be named in honour of his Virgin Queen (and was rewarded with a knighthood for his inspired thought); and Francis Drake, who is showcased as a hero who defeated the Armada and circumnavigated the globe. However, while praising Drake's achievements, Wilson also gives us the flip-side: this privateer was also a buccaneer who plundered treasure, was exceedingly cruel to the crewmembers of the Golden Hind, and behaved 'most inhumanly' with a black woman he encountered in the Pacific, which didn't stop him receiving a knighthood from a Queen who loved a rogue and booty - prompting Wilson to scathingly dub England 'a pirate kingdom, prepared to enrich herself at the expense of the rest of the world.'

Chapters also explore realms within the Realm. Institutions like the Church receive vigorous scrutiny. Elizabeth made it a treasonable offence, punishable by death, to accept the Pope as a higher religious authority than herself. In 1570 Pope Pius V issued his Bull calling not only for Elizabeth's excommunication but deposition. Wilson gives no-holds-barred accounts of religious dissent and bloody persecution. However, as much of it is raking over familiar ground, the Church chapters only truly interest when he eschews cataloguing for analysis. At one point he argues that the Elizabethan Church was more than a spiritual matter, it was also a coalition, a kind of early model for later 'consensus' politics. 'It was not tolerant of those, such as Roman Catholics or Puritans, who denied its grounds for existence. It did, however, for the huge majority of citizens, teach the necessity of two incompatible parties learning to live together.'

Along with religion, we are escorted through the corridors of Elizabethan education, with its rigorous, at times sadistic, schoolmasters and grammarians, its emphasis on classical learning, and attendant, inherent snobberies ('Walter Raleigh's Devon accent was noted at court'). Scientific development is represented by Copernicus, whose revolutionary rewrite of how we quite literally view the world gave Elizabethans the excuse to resuscitate ideas about the universe that were even older. Many of these were mere mystical doctrines, but it explained the popularity of the likes of John Dee who was appointed Elizabeth's occultist, hermetic and spiritual counsellor. Finally, Wilson writes superbly on the wealth of astounding literature, sprinkling his pages with Shakespearean quotation (and arguing that Dee helped inspire The Tempest's Prospero), offering a near-exhaustive study of literature and the theatre scene, and, as a self-confessed admirer of Spenser, extolling the merits of, and decoding the allusions in, his great pageant epic The Faerie Queene.

I say 'near-exhaustive' because although Wilson seeks to be comprehensive (as indeed he was in his stupendous biography of Tolstoy), his omissions, while few, are major. Elizabeth was also a minor poet, but this seems to be of no importance for Wilson - a pity, as her slim output was writing from the heart and so reveals insightful truths. 'The doubt of future woes', written around 1568, is a poem about her Roman Catholic cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The last couplet is a warning: 'Our rusty sword with rest, shall first his edge employ / To poll their tops that seek such change and gape for future joy.' Despite limited range she could still adequately flit from menace to quiet tenderness. 'On Monsieur's Departure' (circa 1582) concerns the sundering of marriage negotiations with the French duke of Anjou - an event Wilson affords only a couple of lines. In the poem she admits to being in love and now grieving, saying 'I freeze and yet am burned'. Later, when declaring 'For I am soft and made of melting snow', we catch a rare glimpse of vulnerability, defiantly at odds with that speech to her troops in which she claims to possess 'the heart and stomach of a King'.

Wilson introduces the Earl of Oxford who today is most renowned for being the supposed real author of Shakespeare's plays. Wilson, rightly, discards this theory as absurd, but frustratingly refuses to elaborate further. His word is frequently gospel, which inevitably engenders many a sweeping-statement (Hamlet is 'without parallel' and 'of greater significance in the English language and culture than the Bible') or hyperbole ('Once you are taken by [The Faerie Queene], you will not want to live in a room that does not contain a copy of Spenser's poem'). But his worst cases of excess are when he indulges in a perverse habit of mirroring the Elizabethan era with that of Nazi Germany. Local presidencies in Ireland were 'gauleiters'; the Jesuits were 'the Pope's Sturmabteilung'; Walsingham 'was not Dr Goebbels' (no, he certainly wasn't). Wilson insists on these silly comparisons throughout and yet writes at one juncture that we 'cannot draw a parallel between the early modern age and the mechanised dictatorships of the twentieth century.' (That said, likening the sexual freedom and pulsing energy of Elizabethan London to the Berlin of the Weimar Republic or the New York of Andy Warhol's generation is both helpful and welcome.)

More unfortunate than this, however, is a tendency to underwrite. Simply stated, certain chapter titles offer what they cannot deliver. The worst offender is one entitled 'Elizabethan Women'. It begins promisingly. We learn that women, like Romeo's Juliet, were marriageable at fourteen, and if some wives behaved as recalcitrant children in need of discipline, it was precisely because they were children. But Wilson soon veers off to cover marriage as an institution (why should this be confined to a chapter on women?) and the marital home, and ends, preposterously, on architecture and class. Women are given short shrift, but as if to validate his decision to twine these themes, he writes, 'It is inevitable, when we are telling the story of the Elizabethans, that we should dwell upon their great houses'. Dwell, yes, but not at the extent of impinging on the main subject. Elizabethan architecture, which Wilson is rapturous about, should have formed a separate chapter, exploring those 'great houses' but also those of the common man. Similarly, he provides choice titbits on class (it was forbidden to pass yourself off as gentry if you were not; common people were not permitted to play tennis or bowls), but they do not belong here. Later, he takes another intriguingly titled chapter, 'Sex and the City', and transforms it into a misnomer by tacking on to it the fascinating but wholly irrelevant shadowy details and skulduggery surrounding Christopher Marlowe's death.

And yet, despite its disjointedness, the book works overall. Wilson writes with verve and wit, illuminating and entertaining in equal measure. He deserves credit for not only narrating history but reimagining it, one standout section being a detailed sketch of how dramatically different English history would have turned out had the Armada actually triumphed. Elizabeth herself comes across as a unique ruler for a singular time, and Wilson's tone is pitch-perfect when expounding on the two main psychological crises of her reign - the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the death of the Earl of Essex - and their ramifications, personal and otherwise. For Wilson, whether we call it a reign or a regime, there was still 'a palpable sense in the country of rebirth, of creative energy, of newness and expansion', and he captures this faultlessly. Glancing back at his preface we find the following, which reads almost as a note-to-self: 'I don't want this book to be a tedious and anachronistic exercise in judging one age by the standards of another.' Admittedly, some of those twentieth-century references should have been culled, but 'tedious' is a charge that is buried under pages of gloriously informative writing.


Malcolm Forbes' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Economist, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.


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