Wednesday, April 27, 2016

New Biography of Elizabeth I: UK and US Versions

John Guy, author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and other periods of English history, including studies of Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, and Thomas a Becket, promotes his new study of the last years of Elizabeth I on his website. He sets out many unique features of Elizabeth: The Last Years, including:

  • Guy steers clear of the myths originating with William Camden's Annales or History of Elizabeth, published between 1615 and 1627 - Camden, for example, air-brushed the brutal torture of Catholics that took place in Elizabeth's later years and promoted the image of a 'benevolent queen' who had rewarded 'those that were wounded and indigent' after the 1588 Armada campaign 'with noble pensions'.
  • Guy dispels the myth of her popularity, exploding the concept of 'Good Queen Bess' to show that this complex character was unpopular even with the men who fought for her, many of whom she left die in the gutters without their wages, or else to beg. Comments such as those to war veterans describing them as 'wandering idle persons of [the] condition of rogues and vagabonds' earned her few fans.
  • Guy counters Lytton Strachey's argument that Elizabeth was in love with Essex, arguing that Essex was partly an accessory, ultimately disposable: 'She was not in love; that could never be. ' Whereas Strachey based his biography Elizabeth and Essex on 'facts' that were nebulous or even wrong, Guy strikes out and gets closer to the truth about the ageing Elizabeth by returning to the original, handwritten letters and documents in the archives rather than by recycling familiar anecdotes culled from unreliable memoirs
  • Most biographers are unaware of the fact that Elizabeth disliked having her portrait painted and may have only sat for her portrait as little as five times. Courtiers as opposed to the queen commissioned portraits as a sign of their loyalty - but these were often copied from previous depictions or occasionally modelled on the queen's bedchamber women wearing her clothes instead of the monarch. The 'Virgin Queen' image was also only introduced later in her life than has been previously thought, not until 1578 - a Victorian misreading of Camden's Annales is responsible for the misconception that she spun this view of herself for propaganda purposes.
  • By returning to original French writings rather than relying on often defective translations, Guy is able to dispel certain misconceptions about Elizabeth's character - for example the idea that she flaunted her sexuality in her choice of dress, disproven by going back to the original writings and rediscovering the correct sixteenth century meanings of words like gorge and √©chancr√©, which shows that in fact Elizabeth favoured Italian and especially Venetian necklines. New documents also throw fresh light on the vexed question of whether Elizabeth really did ever finally designate James VI of Scotland as her successor.

I always find it interesting how publishers market the same book in different countries. Guy's new study of Elizabeth has two different covers: one for the UK (at right) and one for the US (above). I like the UK cover better. Penguin UK is the UK publisher and posts a brief blurb on their site for the book. The Viking blurb for the US is much longer and more detailed:

A groundbreaking reconsideration of our favorite Tudor queen, Elizabeth is an intimate and surprising biography that shows her at the height of her power by the bestselling, Whitbread Award-winning author of Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth was crowned at twenty-five after a tempestuous childhood as a bastard and an outcast, but it was only when she reached fifty and all hopes of a royal marriage were dashed that she began to wield real power in her own right. For twenty-five years she had struggled to assert her authority over advisers who pressed her to marry and settle the succession; now, she was determined not only to reign but also to rule. In this magisterial biography of England’s most ambitious Tudor queen, John Guy introduces us to a woman who is refreshingly unfamiliar: at once powerful and vulnerable, willful and afraid. In these essential and misunderstood forgotten years, Elizabeth confronts challenges at home and abroad: war against the Catholic powers of France and Spain, revolt in Ireland, an economic crisis that triggered riots in the streets of London, and a conspiracy to place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on her throne. For a while she was smitten by a much younger man, but could she allow herself to act on that passion and still keep her throne?

For the better part of a decade John Guy mined long-overlooked archives, scouring court documents and handwritten letters to sweep away myths and rumors. This prodigious historical detective work has made it possible to reveal for the first time the woman behind the polished veneer: wracked by insecurity, often too anxious to sleep alone, voicing her own distinctive and surprisingly resonant concerns. Guy writes like a dream, and this combination of groundbreaking research and propulsive narrative puts him in a class of his own.

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years is due out May 6, 2016.

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