Tempered, sympathetic, and highly readable study of the dynamic created by queens Mary and Elizabeth, rulers of an island that was too small for the both of them.
One of the great boons for this tale of the interplay between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots is the abundance of primary source material—letters, speeches, poems, prayers, dispatches, and reports—of which Dunn (A Very Close Conspiracy, 1991, etc.) makes copious, fluid use. The author also understands the 16th-century frame of mind: the role of superstition and the agency of magic in that febrile, unpredictable world; the insecurity of succession. Dunn concentrates on the contrary and vibrant personalities of the two monarchs as they drive events before them, or slow to a molasses crawl and let the speculations of others fill in the blanks. What Dunn does so well is to usher readers into a bygone world so they can understand the whys and wherefores of the queens’ acts. This works especially well for Elizabeth, “a subject too . . . proud that she was born of a domestic union and not from a dynastic alliance,” who governed by sufferance of the public will. Dunn’s approach works nearly as well for Mary, impetuous and given to the pleasure principle, but also a subtle thinker (at least at times). The two queens never met, and this “black hole at the heart of their relationship” allowed Elizabeth a freedom of action that Mary’s preternatural charm might otherwise have disarmed. Dunn’s knack for keeping the many players in focus gives her narrative the quality of a great big theatrical performance, with cabals here and conspiracies there, lovers coming and going, ethics publicly tested, and one head finally rolling as Mary turns treason into religious martyrdom.
The author achieves a fine duality of her own, reveling in her characters while keeping a gimlet eye on their motivations: wise, unwise, and suicidal. (24 pp. color illustrations, not seen)