- Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman
The young Jane Austen's evaluation of Elizabeth Tudor as a "disgrace to humanity . . . destroyer of all comfort . . . deceitful betrayer of trust reposed in her" (BL Add. MS. 59874) qualifies as a bit over the top in the Anglophone world, though in her own time Elizabeth had detractors and though later writers have sometimes recognized her darker side. Overwhelmingly, the plethora of volumes marking the 400th anniversity of Elizabeth's death have been celebrations of the wily queen. Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman must surely rank as one of the strongest of these celebrations. Each of its components — an introduction, twelve essays, an afterword, and a bibliography — is a delight.
In her thoughtful afterword, Janel Mueller notes that the "lively, central paradox of the present collection of essays" is that "Elizabeth I, no less than any other Elizabethan, becomes salient and intelligible as she is traced and located in the circulating signs and meanings that comprise the web of language, thought, [End Page 707] culture, and history." To take this observation a step further, it is ironic that however determined Elizabeth may have been to function as "her own free woman," she was, in that often successful but by no means unproblematic pursuit, constantly forced to negotiate the web of "circulating signs and meanings" with what Mueller terms "strategies of self-presentation and regal comportment" (239).
Those strategies are delightfully outlined by the contributors to this collection throughout the four parts of the volume: "Elizabeth and a Problematic Court," "Elizabeth Moves through Her Kingdom," "Looking at Elizabeth through Another Lens," and "Elizabeth Then and Now." The shoals among which the queen navigated are aptly traced in the accounts by Jacqueline Vanhoutte and by Debra Barrett-Graves of courtiers who supported and opposed her proposed match with Alençon, in the description by Michael G. Brennan, Noel J. Kinnamon, and Margaret P. Hannay of Elizabeth's perplexing relationship with the Sidney family, and in that by Matthew Woodcock of the differing entertainments by Leicester and Lee featuring the figure of the fairy queen.
Elizabeth's efforts to enforce a measure of conformity and to exact respect from her subjects are finely analyzed by Mary Hill Cole in an account of the queen's progresses to the homes of recusant subjects, by Linda Shenk onElizabeth's orations at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1560s and 1590s, and by Ilona Bell on her interactions with her parliaments on the vexed issue of her marriage. Popular perceptions of the queen are tracked by Sara Mendelson in a variety of contemporary records and by Carole Levin and Jo Eldridge Carney in a survey of contemporary dramas and of twentieth-century dramatic and cinematic portrayals of Elizabeth.
While all the essays are very strong, perhaps the most scintillating, and surely the most entertaining, is Brandie R. Siegfried's arch "Queen to Queen at Check: Grace O'Malley, Elizabeth Tudor, and the Discourse of Majesty in the State Papers of Ireland," a juxtaposition of Elizabeth with the outlaw Irish chieftain and pirate Grace O'Malley. Siegfried elevates to regal status the delightfully transgressive O'Malley — aka Gráinne Ni Mháille, Gráinne Mhaol, Granuaile, and (Dr. Marie-Louise Coolahan has informed me) by numerous "mistranscriptions and (one assumes English) phonetic spellings, such as Gráinne O'Mailley, Granny O'Mayle, Grany Ne Male, Grany Ny Mayle, Grayn Ny Vayle, Grany Ne Malley, Grany Ny Mælly, and Graine Mhaol" (correspondence, 16 March 2004). The juxtaposition allows Siegfried to analyze "the extent to which gender and sovereignty were, for each, twined together in quite distinct ways" (155). In fact, a consideration of the cavalier unconcern and success with which O'Malley habitually violated custom and law (and blithely dominated her husbands) underlines the extent to which Elizabeth was not "her own free woman." There is considerable human as well...