Vivid, opinionated overview of 16th-century Britain by prolific novelist/historian/biographer Wilson (Dante in Love, 2011, etc.).
“[M]odern history began with the Elizabethans,” writes the author, “not simply modern English history, but the modern world as we know it today.” This is rather overstated: While their accomplishments are indeed remarkable, from Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe to the glories of English poetry and prose in the age of Spenser and Shakespeare, they were rooted in the Renaissance cultural explosion across Europe, as Wilson acknowledges. His readable, well-informed survey is strikingly ambivalent. On one hand, he depicts Queen Elizabeth as a political genius who transformed a weak, religiously divided nation into a world power; on the other, he dwells obsessively on her parsimony and indecisiveness. Similarly, Wilson spends inordinate amounts of time arguing with contemporary historians whom he claims have lost sight of the era’s magnificent achievements as they berate the Elizabethans for racism, imperialism, cruelty and oppression of Ireland. General readers are unlikely to know what Wilson is talking about, particularly since he gives few specific examples to justify his sweeping generalizations about political correctness. Fortunately, as has been the case in some of his earlier nonfiction works, the gratuitous editorializing doesn’t really detract from a colorful narrative packed with great stories and shrewd insights. Wilson’s examination of the Elizabethan religious compromise sympathetically depicts a national church trying to make room for everyone from covert Catholics to extreme Puritans. He also does well in reminding us that Elizabethan humanists believed they were rediscovering the wisdom of antiquity, not inventing something new. Nonetheless, his vigorous chronicle shows new energies erupting everywhere. Wilson makes a strong case for his underlying principle: that the English national identity, notable for its paradoxical blend of proud insularity and globetrotting adventurism, was formed by the Elizabethans.
Great fun, despite some unnecessary argumentativeness.