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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

“Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens”, by Jane Dunn

480 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-0375408984

Two of history’s most famous queens – one known for her unexpected and remarkable greatness; the other for her inexplicably poor judgment and bad luck – are the subject of Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. But was their famous rivalry inevitable? Was Elizabeth always the popular, talented, dominant one while Mary remained in her shadow? Jane Dunn asks these questions, and I was surprised (and pleased) by some of her answers.

The first part of the book is essentially a point-by-point comparison of the two queens, detailing their very different youths and explaining how they would influence the women in later years. Essentially, Mary had a huge sense of entitlement, was overconfident in her own power and security, and was a much more “traditional” woman (and Queen) of her day. Elizabeth, whose childhood was punctuated by dramatic changes of fortune, had a much more acute sense of how tenuous her position was, and how much she depended on the good will of her people to maintain power. Dunn does beat the Mary-as-charming-but-spoiled and Bess-as-brilliant-control-freak comparison into us a bit, but it is a good way of looking at the very different natures of these two women. Her book isn’t a full biography of either queen; rather it’s a look at the intersection between them: their relationship with each other, their competition, rivalry, and common causes. As such it's a fascinating look at a unique time in European history, the so-called “Age of Queens”.

Posterity-wise, Mary got the short end of the stick. History will always remember her as Elizabeth’s paler shadow, a major annoyance and minor queen who had no one but herself to blame for her tragic end. Although Dunn does occasionally (perhaps unavoidably) slip into Mary-bashing and Bess-worship, on the whole she does a good job pointing out that that wasn't always the case – and, had a few things gone differently, we would paint a very different portrait of the two cousins. Her Mary and Elizabeth are fully human: flaws, quirks, charms, and all. It’s the best way to explain the convoluted relationship between the two, and it provides a lot of useful character insight into all other aspects of these Queens as well (I do wish Dunn had gone further into the possibility that Mary was bipolar; it’s a fascinating hypothesis, and it would explain quite a lot). Mary's end is, I felt, too rushed; 20 years are covered in a handful of pages and the account of the execution itself offers nothing new. But until that point, I thoroughly enjoyed this provocative and inspiring portrait of two very different women whom circumstances thrust into such fierce competition.

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