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Elizabeth & Mary

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens (2003) Jane Dunn

Elizabeth & Mary

I like to read books about history because my knowledge of history is–at best–poor, and I always like learning more. For instances, the sum total of my knowledge of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots was that Mary thought the secret codes she was using were unbreakable, while Elizabeth was reading her secret messages, which lead to Mary’s execution. (Learned that bit from Simon Singh‘s The Code Book.)

So I read the occasional history book, to pick up on all the bits I missed in school, and a book about two queens who reigned in the 1500s seemed particularly interesting.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth & Mary was to be a serious disappointment.

The writing itself was not bad. The problem was the flow of the story.

I understand that when you’re writing a book about two different people, you’re going to switch from person to person. That’s perfectly fine and to be expected. What I had problems with was the fact that the story kept jumping back and forth in time. While talking about, say, Elizabeth’s childhood, the tale suddenly leaps forward and tells how this event shaped actions that Elizabeth would take twenty years later, go on about those actions for awhile, and then wander back eventually to Elizabeth’s childhood.

Additionally, until the second half of the book, the time frames between the two women seemed off kilter. Sometimes the time frames matched in years, sometimes the time frames matched the ages of the women (there was a significant difference between their ages) and sometimes there seemed to be no relationship at all between the events in Mary’s like and the events in Elizabeth’s life. So I had a difficult time following many of the comparisons between the two.

What this meant was that the story was severely fragmented, and I kept reading about the same things again and again, out of time and context. I realize that in a history book there’s not going to be a suspenseful ending, but I find a story reads much better when the events are told, and then the repercussions discussed as the events unfold. It allows me to better understand the events in the context of their time. As it is, even after reading this book I am still unsure as to when some events happened, and even the precise age difference between the two queens.

Additionally, there seemed to be a continual positive spin on events in Elizabeth’s life, and a negative spin on events in Mary’s life. Mind you, I’m not sticking up for Mary–she did plot to kill Elizabeth and steal her throne. But Elizabeth comes across as a far more vibrant and real person, while Mary often seemed little more than a caricature of the bad queen–a harlot to Elizabeth’s pious virginity.

All in all this book was a grave disappointment–especially considering that I bought the thing in hardback. So if you’re looking for a good book about the history of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots–keep looking. This fragmented tale brought me far more confusion than enlightenment.
Rating: 3/10

Categories: History, Paper


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