Dying in 1587, just as Shakespeare probably got going, Mary Queen of Scots has been a peripheral figure in my reading, writing and teaching over the past few years. Perhaps unjustly. In her book, ‘Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens’, Jane Dunn fascinatingly posits that one queen can only be defined by contrast to her rival.
Dunn’s writing is succinct and engaging, liberal with contemporary quotations and examples from the correspondence between the women. There are helpful, unobtrusive modernisations where required. Overall, I think the book is nicely neutral, neither queen ever fully lionised or vilified, and with a satisfying – to me – focus on how nurture affected each woman’s nature.
I already knew the bare bones of Mary’s story, but Dunn’s accomplishment is to keep both queens in play, placing episodes and eras from the women’s lives in sharp relief against each other. We move fluently between their childhoods, for instance – one a prisoner on the periphery of power; the other a pampered princess raised to be a plaything. So, for example, David Rizzio’s later murder becomes more interesting and relevant for the effect it had in England as well as amongst Mary’s Scottish subjects. Often, the juxtaposition is interesting because it seems to be almost exactly as one star waxes that the other wanes, be that in love, power, support or betrayal.
Another thing the book reveals is the strangely symbiotic relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. The many examples of correspondence between them shows how often Mary was the supplicant, the junior partner in the relationship, but Dunn also exposes the mutuality of obsession, and the ways in which Elizabeth was caught on the horns of a dilemma. Elizabeth needed her cousin to be a strong, successful queen because it helped defy the stereotypical view that women could not reign successfully, one bolstered by the pathetic disaster of Bloody Mary’s reign. Yet, because Scottish Mary was for so long Elizabeth’s closest rival and the nearest thing she had to an official heir, it was all too easy for her to become a figurehead and deadly threat.
The weakest area of the text is Dunn’s repeated desire to diagnose 21st-century ailments from the various symptoms the women display. There may well be a case that one or both suffered from depression in their lifetimes, but Dunn makes it too frequently and too readily for my taste. If I have any other constructive criticism is that there’s little need to restate the point that Elizabeth and Mary never met so many times. Dunn’s prose is fluent and sometimes graceful, but ultimately she runs out of elegant ways to state this.
Overall, I found the book engaging, and it has added an extra dimension to my ideas about Elizabeth, and relationships between powerful women, in that era and its literature.
Jane Dunn, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, (London: Harper Perennial, 2004)