The age of Queen Elizabeth requires context, because without such context, we cannot understand much of modern history—nor could students of Marlowe, Shakespeare or Spenser read their poetry or plays with any hope of recovering the more subtle references. Although Elizabethan England arguably represents the beginning phases of modernity, much of what people believed as truth would be considered foreign to many today, and much of what they thought, alien.
When I studied Shakespeare and Donne, I kept E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture handy. The smallish paperback did its duty to enlighten readers with the basic beliefs and structures held during the 16th and 17th centuries. A.N. Wilson’s The Elizabethans attempts to do much the same, but with a more grandiose agenda. Unsatisfied with observation and exposition, Wilson attempts to pass along his interpretation of the age, and draws bigger conclusions, which detracts from a consistent sense immersion in Queen Elizabeth’s world. These constant bumps of authorial insight disrupt the journey to the past—bumps, if removed, would have made for a better book.
As a fan of the Elizabethan age, I can tell when I encounter another fan. And Wilson is much more a fan than a critical thinker. Where Tillyard described the ideas of the age succinctly and dispassionately, Wilson often places himself, and if not himself, at least his interpretations, directly inside the context. The book, for example, begins not with transition from the torturous years of Mary I’s reign and the new uncertainty bound up in the young Queen Elizabeth, but with a chapter titled “The Difficulty”, which expounds upon the historical and contemporary analysis of the social and political issues that wrenched the close geography of England and Ireland for centuries. “The New World”, chapter follows “The Difficulty” with commentary on slavery.
Eventually, Wilson arrives directly at Elizabeth’s rather ornate cloak-tails and begins his exploration of the Elizabethans. The book is arranged in four major eras beginning with the early reign, followed by the 1570s, 1580s, and The Close of the Reign, which roughly follow the decades of Elizabeth’s reign. Much of the book peers through the lens of those closest to Elizabeth, and through the great open doors of the writers who characterized 16th century England. Wilson spends precious little time exploring the lives of people who lived in Elizabethan England, those who attended plays, were unable to escape plague by fleeing into the country, or who were locked by societal fate into lives that offered the same constraints as those lived by their parents.
Throughout, Wilson seems torn between his distaste for the barbarism of Elizabethan reality, and the aspirations of its more forward thinkers — and in some cases, like Spenser, sentiment and horror rolled into one package. On one hand Spenser writes the flamboyant Faire Queen in praise of his adored Queen Elizabeth, while with the same pen, he rails about the Irish with nearly as much rancor as does Hitler in his assessment of the Jews. Wilson’s personal affections are never far in The Elizabethans.
Wilson is also prone to inserting very contemporary observations that seemingly add little to the understanding of the Elizabethan world. This example invokes British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, which offers a taste not only of Wilson’s sometimes questionable analysis, but also of his own overblown prose:
Even in the most apparently basilolatrous of her poets, Spenser, Elizabeth could have read criticism: some have found in his work outright republicanism. Her dearest favourite of the late phase was the Essex who betrayed her. Ted Hughes, the late-twentieth-century Poet Laureate, made a rich imaginative reading of the sixteenth century’s greatest writer, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Of course Hughes was not an Eng. Lit. don and his book would be eschewed by what Thomas Nashe in a different context called ‘scholasticali squitter books.’ But Hughes was surely right to see that Shakespeare was a manner of prophet who saw into the life of what was happening to his society: ‘The Zeitgeist itself, it seems, conscripted Shakespeare’s synapses to rehearse all those regicides (malevolent and pitiless like Richard III; possessed yet noble like Macbeth; noble and selfless like Brutus; shrewd and evil like Edmund) before it finally stepped out (after quirkish flashes in the pan — the giddy Essex, its attempts to incriminate Raleigh) into flesh and blood and history. In about the year that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, Oliver Cromwell (another apocalyptic dreamer) dreamed he would he King (and told his master and ‘as whipped for it).
It may seem particularly difficult for an American to evaluate a book on English history, but perhaps cultural distance results in a less precious analysis of a history intertwined but ultimately separate from my country’s history. Many American’s certainly continue to venerate British Royalty and flock to OK! Magazine, to television shows (and books) like The White Queen and films like Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous, but that veneration usually refrains from transforming into any type of wistful thinking about England’s past and its influence on America. American Slavery, for example, falls cleanly into the domestic domain, with few outside of academia still chewing on the European origins of New World enslavement of Africans. Once separated from England, the continuity of the unbroken injustice of slavery becomes the sole responsibility of the most recent perpetrators—not those, too, who originated the practice.
Wilson does not seem to be able to find historical distance that allows him to separate Elizabethan reality from that of contemporary England, despite his assertion that the reconciliation of England with Ireland marked the final moment of Elizabethan England. In the chapter, “Sex and the City”, for example, Wilson offers a long diatribe on homosexuality and ‘Anglicanism’, two concepts that were unknown in Elizabethan times, and which Wilson argues don’t really apply in retrospective analysis. It seems, at over two pages, that this type of analysis does matter to Wilson because rather than editing it out or shortening it to a simple observation, he expounds needlessly upon it to make the point that sexual mores were different in Elizabethan England. A good editor could have helped transform not only this passage, but the book in general, from a good book into at least a very good book, by excising a bit more of the author’s infestations from its pages.
The age of Elizabeth was one of great social and literary advancement, but not for all. After Elizabeth, years of civil war, failed monarchies and the erosion of colonial power would slowly degrade the memory of past glories, such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada or the great Western discoveries that took place under Elizabeth. Wilson does, however, remind us that underlying the mythos that has arisen around the Virgin Queen was a contentious and political reality that kept England in a constantly unsettled state, making the achievements of her reign even more remarkable.
Unlike many history books that require a genealogy and constant reference (like Elizabeth Weir’s thorough but dense The Life of Elizabeth I), Wilson’s The Elizabethans is a fairly easy read, as one would expect of a writer focused on creating consumable prose for newspaper and magazine readers. Always lurking, though, is the columnist, inserting opinion and mixing history with the contemporary in ways that they should perhaps not be mixed.
Critical readers will have to decide for themselves if Wilson’s approach adds or detracts from the attempt at contextualizing the Age of Elizabeth. For me, I found mostly pleasure in The Elizabethans when it let the history sweep me to court and battlefield—an experience I found too often punctuated by moments of distraction and distrust by misplaced material, observations and opinions.