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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“The Elizabethans”, by A.N. Wilson


448 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374147440

A. N. Wilson is an English writer and columnist who has written for such papers as the London Evening Standard, Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, The Spectator and The Observer. He has also written several critical biographies, novels, and works of popular history, such as this one, The Elizabethans, which can best be described as a series of essays covering significant events and issues during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). There is no unifying theme, except chronological, as the book is divided into, first, successive decades and, then, further subdivided by decade into chapters covering the most historically significant events or issues of the time. The lack of a unifying theme makes the book a little hard to follow, although each chapter, often quite detailed, is interesting and informative in its own right. Its targeted audience is English.

Wilson seems to see himself as something of an iconoclast, trying to reinterpret received wisdom, and he tries mightily to explain how a small island nation off the coast of Europe became a world leader in exploration, literary arts, colonization, drama, political theory, and any number of other key areas, showing through his discussion how Elizabeth’s era generated such powerful cultural changes and, through those changes, ushered in the modern era. The religious conflicts of Elizabeth’s reign are the most frequently discussed topic and might be as close to a unifying theme as Wilson has. In one way or another, these religious divisions contributed to the other major events and conflicts. It’s not a book for someone new to the Elizabethan period, for although the information, and even many of the digressions, are certainly informative, some grounding in the period would be useful to the general reader, if only to help said reader keep track of the players (especially when Wilson starts talking about how his interpretation differs from the standard view).

Wilson is a good writer and the essays are sound. He makes a point to include various theories on different mysteries of the time (from baby-daddy dramas to Marlowe’s death), but maintains an honest relationship with the reader, making it very clear when he is expressing his opinions and when he is citing facts. This is a great read for anyone who has ever been interested understanding Elizabethan times beyond a book that praises the Queen from the first page to the last while also outlining her various weaknesses. The concluding chapter is wrapped up in parallel with Hamlet. The author took great care throughout the rest of the book to refrain from comparing anything from the Elizabethan era to our own, reasoning that it wasn’t possible to compare things from two very different times. Instead, the use of Hamlet to show the eventual down-spiral of Elizabeth’s reign, and the savior in the form of a foreign (or in this case, Scottish) power, shows the depth of the author’s understanding and appreciation for the subject. Overall The Elizabethans provides a good summary of the Elizabethan era and good introductions to its most significant figures.

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