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England's Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy.

Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson. England's Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii + 348 pp. + 13 col. pls. index. illus. chron. $29.95. ISBN: 0-19-818377-1.

The 400th anniversary of Elizabeth I's death has spawned a number of literary and dramatic reflections on her life and legend. Dobson and Watson's book, timed to coincide with current exhibitions, assembles a wide array of literary and artistic artifacts and icons including plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and films to consider the relation between memory and appropriation in popular representations of the famous queen. In a cultural feminist critique, the authors argue that ambivalence about Elizabeth's political and sexual power has continued to inform her functions as national emblem, foil for later monarchs, and commercial product. They offer a broad sweep of historical material; nevertheless, their study is authoritative and engaging.

Dobson and Watson maintain that each generation expresses anxiety over the power Elizabeth derives from her celibacy and virginity by attempting to either harness or repudiate that power for political and cultural purposes. The authors explore four examples of the urge to exploit Elizabeth's power. They use Spenser's The Faerie Queene and several costume dramas to argue a Jacobean suppression of Elizabeth's unpopular characteristics and actions in favor of her public image as emblem of national unity and Protestantism, a hermaphroditic public figure obscured by the costume of state and stage (chap. 1). Next, the authors examine the ballads, paintings, and period collectibles that perpetuate the image of "Good Queen Bess," the emblem of national culture (chap. 3). They claim that the representations of Bess as British beef-eater and intimate of Shakespeare counterbalance the idea of the queen as Mary Stuart's executioner. Specifically, speculations on intimacy with Shakespeare express national anxiety about Elizabeth's conventionally unfeminine narrative in a way that exploits the iconic status of both figures. The authors see the same dynamics at work when Victorians co-opt Elizabeth's status as patron to enlist Victoria's support for the arts and modern inventions (chap. 4). Similarly, the growing British preoccupation with religious revival and empire-building produced a role for Elizabeth and her two most famous explorers, Drake and Raleigh, as emblems of a new, ecumenical national destiny (chap. 5). They see Elizabeth as benign icon in epic narratives for boys that incorporate a "historical panorama" and "supermasculin[e]" heroes (180).

By contrast, Dobson and Watson argue that attention to Elizabeth's interiority has historically bred distaste. They propose that the rise of the sentimental novel generated a fundamental conflict surrounding Elizabeth's image because her emblematic function is at odds with the image of the sentimental woman generated by numerous "secret histories" of Elizabeth's life (chap. 2). Chastised for terminating Mary Stuart's more romantic and conventionally feminine narrative of love, marriage, motherhood, and captivity, Elizabeth is characterized as the "destroyer of legitimate yet powerless femininity" (104) and an "unattractive and heartless instrument of history" (108) in these accounts. Victoria's evolving narrative of domesticity eventually inspired similar repugnance for Elizabeth's "exploitative" and eventually "promiscuous" virginity (154). Angry perceptions of her deadly and "fraudulent" political power are expressed in paintings of her as an old woman (156). Yet as Victoria aged, accounts of the two queens' girlhoods proliferated in painting and prose during the rise of children's literature, as Victorians attempted to realign the private feelings of these two women with their public status and responsibilities as queens.

Furthermore, Dobson and Watson trace how increased attention to female interiority, sexuality, and public leadership in the twentieth century continued to refigure Elizabeth. They find modernist views on Elizabeth's "non-reproductive sexuality" split on gender lines: Eliot and Strachey characterize it as deformed, while Woolf perceives an "anti-Victorian modernity" in Elizabeth's vibrant private sexuality (224). The reign of the domesticated Elizabeth II shapes the 1950s narratives of Elizabeth I's yearnings for marriage and motherhood, while later, liberated generations make her the model for female achievement (263). The afterword traces the emergence of the United States as inheritor of Elizabeth's cultural legacy.

Combining their expertise in Renaissance drama and the novel respectively, Dobson and Watson challenge the assumptions and expose the anxieties underlying a vast collection of literary, artistic and commercial representations with imagination, precision and irreverent wit. Their argument that icons and cultural anxieties over them are timeless and subject to culturally imposed shape-shifting is grounded in a breadth of materials newly considered in juxtaposition. This book will appeal to a general audience, as well as to feminists, cultural historians, and art, literary, and film critics.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Ahern, Susan W.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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