Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 112 / Number 2 - Review
Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens •
Jane Dunn • New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004 • xxiv, 454 pp. • $30.00
Reviewed by Mary Hill Cole, professor of history at Mary Baldwin College. She is the
author of The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony (1999) and "Maternal
Memory: Elizabeth Tudor's Anne Boleyn," Explorations in Renaissance Culture 30 (2004): 41–56.
The four-hundredth anniversary last year of Elizabeth I's death has inspired a wealth of publications devoted
to her life and reign, and Jane Dunn's dual study of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart should find a welcome
home among them. Beginning with the birth of Elizabeth in 1533 and concluding with the Armada in the year
after Mary's execution in 1587, Dunn explores the difficult relationship that developed over forty years
between the two women. Personalities are her focus, and, in particular, she contrasts the self-control
and political savvy of Elizabeth I with the self-indulgence and miscalculations of Mary Queen of Scots.
Some of these distinctions she attributes to their upbringing: whereas executions, bastardization, and
dangerous suitors toughened Elizabeth and honed her political instincts, the pampered world of the French
court and doting male protectors ill prepared Mary to govern a very different Scotland. It is a testament to
Dunn's authorial skills that the two queens remain a human mixture of foibles and strengths, even if readers
will probably favor one over the other.
The chapters layer the events in each queen's life to emphasize their connections and shared players,
and the way Dunn overlaps these relationships facilitates smooth transitions from one court to the other
as the narrative criss-crosses the Channel. Having published studies of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell,
and Mary Shelley, Dunn writes with engaging clarity. She has mined some of the printed primary
sources, especially Elizabeth I: Collected Works (edited by Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary
Beth Rose), for the vivid details and sense of immediacy that lie at the heart of good historical prose,
and the bibliography shows a familiarity with the major biographical studies of key figures. In addition,
the dynastic chart, chronology, index, endnotes, and several dozen color portraits are helpful and carefully produced.
On the famous matters of controversy coloring the two women's lives, Dunn thinks that Elizabeth chose
celibacy at an early age and probably did not have sexual relations with her longtime companion, Robert
Dudley; nor was his wife Amy Robsart's death a clever murder to free him to marry the queen. Dunn
suggests that Mary Stuart might have expected (and later been thankful for) an attack on her husband,
Henry Darnley, without being complicit in his murder, and that the incendiary "casket letters" revealing
evidence of Mary's guilt were probably forgeries. Elizabeth and Mary never met, despite early efforts
and mutual willingness to do so, and this "black hole at the heart of their relationship" (p. 196) led to
misperceptions, fears, and attacks that ebbed only after Mary's trial and execution on Elizabeth's order.
Though scholars of the era will find themselves on familiar if debatable ground, Dunn offers all her readers
a thoughtful, readable commentary on the personalities and influences that shaped these two remarkable
women, who, in different ways, dominated the second half of the sixteenth century.