After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.
The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about English geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.
While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.
It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:
“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”
Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.
After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…
Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).
The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.
By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.
Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.