Carole Levin, Jo Eldridge Carney, Debra Barrett-Graves, eds.;. Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. xii + 282 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-0797-7.
Reviewed by Regina Buccola (Department of English, Roosevelt University)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2004)
Piecing out the Puzzle of the Enigmatic Queen
The four hundredth anniversary of the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 2003 occasioned numerous retrospective analyses of her reign as well as of the four centuries of critique and comment on it by historians, literary scholars, and cultural critics, among others. Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman is a substantial contribution to this body of work which situates Elizabeth in the context of the era that bears her name in compelling new ways and concludes with a cogent critique of the way in which Elizabeth's life story has been used to circumscribe women's power in its twentieth-century film incarnations. The collection boasts a host of luminaries in early modern studies, as well as several emerging scholars whose work holds great promise. Chief among the former are co-editor Carole Levin, who served as a historical consultant on two of the three major exhibits devoted to Queen Elizabeth I in 2003 (those at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Newberry Library), and Janel Mueller, co-editor of Elizabeth's Collected Works, who provides the afterword to the collection.
In many ways, Mueller has already performed the task of a reviewer. Her afterword offers astute readings of each of the essays in the collection, along with criticism of the argument or presentation of alternative views that Mueller, given her own abundant work on Queen Elizabeth I, is well equipped to provide. The afterword is but one of several features that make the collection easy to navigate. The introduction, written by all three editors, is succinct and serves mainly to summarize the essays. These two summative essays, bracketing the collection, supplement the most direct means of identifying material of interest, its division into four parts, each part consisting of three essays addressing the topic in question.
The first part addresses "Elizabeth and a Problematic Court." Two essays in this section address the issue of Elizabeth's vexed marital negotiations with the Alençon family in France. Jacqueline Vanhoutte focuses on the controversy over the French marital negotiations as manifested in John Stubbs's sharply censored pamphlet, The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf Whereinto England is Like to be Swallowed. Despite the queen's harsh reaction to this presumptuous document offering marital advice to her (she ordered the unfortunately-named Stubbs's right hand chopped off), Vanhoutte argues that the incident really demonstrates the extent to which the queen had to bow to popular opinion with respect to her marital status. Debra Barrett-Graves's essay considers the question of Elizabeth's honor and the manner in which it became a synecdoche for the honor of the nation during her marital negotiations with the French ambassadors. The essay which rounds out this first section, "Robert Sidney, the Dudleys, and Queen Elizabeth," paves the way for the forthcoming publication of Robert Sidney's correspondence, edited by the authors of this essay: Michael G. Brennan, Noel J. Kinnamon, and Margaret P. Hannay. The excellent analysis of the Sidney family's blighted fortunes offered here strongly suggests the significance that ready access to Sidney's correspondence will have to Elizabethan court studies.
The second part of the collection, "Elizabeth Moves through Her Kingdom," offers fascinating evaluations of Elizabeth's annual progresses. Mary Hill Cole offers a new take on her book-length study of Elizabeth's progresses by focusing on the Catholic families that the queen visited. Linda Shenk performs an absorbing analysis of Elizabeth's university orations, arguing that Elizabeth shifted, over the course of these three orations at Oxford and Cambridge, from an advocate of a humanism based in an understanding of education as a leveler to a monarch determined to emphasize the hierarchical order inherent in a society consisting of people with widely varying degrees of education. Matthew Woodcock provides a sorely-needed analysis of the Fairy Queen figure employed in numerous entertainments provided for Elizabeth on progress, noting that the highly ambiguous nature assigned to the fairy queen in popular lore means that now, as in Elizabeth's own day, "a definitive identification of what the fairy queen represents or means is continually open to renegotiation" (p. 113).
The third portion of the collection engages in "Looking at Elizabeth through Another Lens." The lens in question with each essay is another popular figure in the Elizabethan consciousness. So, Michele Osherow examines the Biblical King David as "A Biblical Model for a Renaissance Queen." Continuing with religious figures, Craig Rustici argues persuasively that stories about the infamous Pope Joan--a popular image of monstrous female power--were suppressed during Elizabeth's forty-five-year reign. Brandie R. Siegfried reads Elizabeth against the notorious pirate queen of the west of Ireland, Graínne Ní Mháille (Anglicized as Grace O'Malley).
The final section of the book, "Elizabeth Then and Now," begins with Ilona Bell's essay "Elizabeth and the Politics of Elizabethan Courtship," which reads Elizabeth's cagey speeches to Parliament regarding her marital intentions off against a trio of early modern works in which women speak out for the right to make informed choices about whom they marry. These are: the poetry of Isabella Whitney, a long neglected London poet who boldly published her own work; the anonymous A Letter sent by the Maydens of London, to the virtuous Matrones & Mistresses of the same, in the defense of their lawfull Libertie; and Edmund Tilney's A brief and pleasant discourse of duties in Mariage, called the Flower of Friendshippe, which features a powerful defense of women's right to choose their own mates in the mouth of Isabella (the Spanish rendition of the name Elizabeth). Bell argues that Elizabeth's headstrong refusal to capitulate to Parliament's attempts to control her marriage negotiations elicited a strong drive for female autonomy in relationship dealings in the wider Elizabethan society.
Sara Mendelson provides the title for the collection in the conclusion to her essay, which nicely places popular responses to Queen Elizabeth I in the context of Elizabethan attitudes toward women generally. Her "Popular Perceptions of Elizabeth" is divided into sections tellingly titled "Chastity," "Obedience," "Piety," and "Silence." The collection concludes with a compelling analysis of the representation of Elizabeth in two pairs of popular representations, Foxe's Acts and Monuments and Thomas Heywood's play If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody; and the twentieth-century films Young Bess and Elizabeth. The essay, co-authored by Levin and Carney, begins by asserting, "we must ask why the depictions aimed at a broad audience have been unable to fully realize a more complex Elizabeth, and what this suggests about public attitudes toward powerful women in both Elizabeth's age and our own" (p. 215). Ultimately, the essay concludes, the failure to adequately represent Elizabeth "perpetuate[s] the myths about what young women can and cannot do with their lives today" (p. 235).
The many reconsiderations of Elizabeth now available make it easier than ever to devote courses in history, literature, political science and women's, and gender studies to the enigmatic queen. Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman would be an excellent ancillary text for such courses, while its copious notes and abundant bibliography also make it a useful resource for advanced scholars.
. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds., Elizabeth I: Collected Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) [editor's note: reviewed by H-Albion, February 2001, <http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=26352983985872>]; see also Janel Mueller and Leah S. Marcus, eds., Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
. Mary Hill Cole, The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
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Regina Buccola. Review of Levin, Carole; Carney, Jo Eldridge; Barrett-Graves, Debra, eds.;, Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman.
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