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Reviewed by:
  • Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing
  • Mary E. Hazard
Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo , eds. Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing. London: The British Library, 2007. xvi + 221 pp. index. illus. bibl. $75. ISBN: 978-0-7123-0678-2.

This title might seem to promise a sweeping anthropological study of the economical, social, moral, and aesthetic context of writing as literature during the time of Elizabeth I, a manic mosquito's-eye view of the full-blooded body of cultural data. The book is less and more. These essays zoom in on writing in the literal sense of Elizabethan handwriting, and how rich that corpus is.

Incomplete evidence, absent or unreliable dating, difficulty of access, disparity between copies, and partial illegibility of Elizabeth's hand at its most gnarled or Lord Burghley's multilayered afterthoughts on the order for execution of Mary Queen of Scots (182), challenged these admirably tenacious researchers. Their comprehensive notes crediting the work of other scholars provide a generous bibliography and suggestions for further investigation. [End Page 1364]

Narrow focus within seemingly unpromising documents yields rewarding glimpses into personality, politics, and aesthetics. The permeable boundary between private and public media opened a third, manipulable medium for wordless communication of the unspeakable. Grace Ioppolo traces how Essex "constructs himself and his Queen in the Hulton Letters" (43), some never printed in full, wherein the two correspondents assume gendered roles varying drastically between private and public performance. This third medium could transmit illusion of a special access to the queen, as in the fatal actions of Essex, or through the persona of Loricus in Gabriel Heaton's careful reading of "The Tale of Hemetes." Heaton's felicitous phrasing indicates how the ambitious Gascoigne exploited "the privileged space of address" (104) in his choice of illustrations for his gift copy to the queen of this tale written by another. Doubly manipulative in intent were both Cecil's self-constructing courtly verses to the queen and their afterlife, although reputedly "very secrett" (122), when broadcast by others with libelous intent, according to Joshua Eckhardt's study of the transmission of songs written for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth too wrote to create a sense of her absent presence as H. R. Woudhuysen illustrates in a study of changes in the queen's hand and its reception. She artfully added to scribal documents, occasionally to impart personal warmth on a condolence letter as Steven W. May notes in his thorough study of Elizabeth's prayers, an untapped resource for insights into her personality. Her letters to her "Good George," Sir George Carey, also previously neglected but now researched by Katherine Duncan-Jones, show "a level of tenderness" earlier undocumented in her published writings (33).

Elizabeth's personal notations and emendations on official scribal documents expose her private reservations on matters of state, especially execution warrants. Peter Beal selects the warrants for Thomas Howard, Essex, and Mary Queen of Scots in order to display the queen's anguished ambivalence concerning cases with important private and public implications. Mary's execution was particularly fraught with dangerous consequences for all involved in the drafting of the warrant, as is evident in the multiple annotations and scrupulously legalistic language of the many copies. Through careful recording of historical and legal rationalizations for their sentences of execution, the warrants anticipate the reactions of future readers, including the queen herself, who did indeed scapegoat some of the officials involved in executing her sometime decisions. Temporizing was politic; so too were delay and even failure to deliver documents.

Politics also infused media often seen as outside political concerns. Blair Worden matches Sir Philip Sidney's rhetoric in his risky letter to the queen opposing her possible marriage to the Duke of Anjou, a private letter widely copied, with arguments in his Old Arcadia, thus fictively representing his political principles in the safer mode of "Delightful Teaching." Personal, religious, or political interests could also motivate one's choice of an elegant gift book, as Jane Lawson demonstrates in her impressively researched study of New Year's gift books to the queen.

Small suggestions: one typo (17, n. 59) should read "228" for "28," and a [End Page 1365...


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pp. 1364-1366
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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