John A. Watkins. Representing Elizabeth in Stuart England: Literature, History, Sovereignty.
In the seventeenth century, representing Elizabeth was a primary language of politics, and the history of such representations "central to the larger story of the modern state's emergence from absolutism" (2). Her images, at times distorted beyond recognition, define positions across the political spectrum. As Protestant warrior queen and militant protectress of international Calvinism, she dominates the oppositional discourses of the period, a glorious foil setting off the alleged failings of her successors; but Stuart texts also represent her as benevolent and majestic absolutist facing down an insubordinate Commons; as master-architect of a via media between prerogative and Parliamentary rule; as female figurehead deferring to the masculine wisdom of her advisors; as Machiavellian despot; as the "embodiment of Whiggery" (109). If some of these texts deploy Elizabeth against the Stuarts, in others she mirrors their own ideal self-image. For the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century, she occupied the center of the political imagination; by the eighteenth, she belongs to the past. But as her political relevance waned, she rose from her own ashes to an unexpected new life as the star of the hugely popular scandalous histories purporting to reveal her private amours. Their Elizabeth is no Virgin Queen but a "passion-driven diva," and if less than admirable as a monarch, still fascinating as a celebrity (11). In these texts she becomes the heroine of a new age: no longer defender of the faith against the papal Antichrist but a tragic individual in a world of vulgar and pragmatic bureaucrats (185), her identity no longer defined in relation to God or the commonwealth but by her relationships with her lovers (154-55). The emergence of the modern state from absolutism and the emergence of erotic subjectivity from religious inwardness occur at the same time and in the same texts.
The discovery of this Restoration reinvention of Elizabeth is one of the high points of Watkins' fine monograph, the other being the book's dark genealogy of liberalism. Watkins does not allow us to forget that oppositional politics under the early Stuarts had less to do with personal liberties than "rabid anti-Catholicism" (34). When Elizabeth is praised at James' expense, it is usually for her persecution of Catholics, for her "apocalyptic struggle against the Whore of Babylon" (20). If the "oppositional fantasy" of Elizabeth embraces religious violence, it rests on "historiographic bad faith" (77). Thus Watkins notes that the mid-century writers who depict her as proto-constitutionalist Protestant crusader simply ignore the extensive evidence to the contrary available in Camden's Annals and the "myriad other contemporary and surviving sources that attributed to her a more compromising foreign policy and a more absolutist domestic one." Their authors do not mention the crucifix in her chapel, her anti-Puritanism, her reluctance to become involved in the continental wars of religion, her "frequent assertions of her prerogative," but fabricate an Elizabeth in their own image in order to persuade their readership that Stuart policy marked a sinister break with the England of Gloriana (93-94). Whether or not such fantasies paved the road to the English Civil War, Watkins, perhaps wisely, does not say.
The chapter on the Restorations scandalous histories, however, centers on falsehood's power to change reality. Watkins repeatedly notes that these works "played an important role in dismantling an absolutist mystique" (151): by disclosing the seamy mysteries of state, they had "democratic" implications (158); they provided the "emerging bourgeois common reader" with "a powerful critique of absolutism" (169-72). And yet, as Watkins makes dazzlingly clear, these revelations of Elizabeth's torrid loves and murderous jealousies had not one cement block of historical foundation. They were not based on state papers or manuscript diaries, but were translations of late seventeenth-century French historical romances written by French aristocrats, who transposed on to Elizabethan England their resentment at Louis XIV's transfer of power from the ancient nobility to "lowborn bureaucrats" (156). These works taught the common reader to question authority, thus enabling "the modern state's emergence from absolutism," but they are hardly training in Habermasian rationality. They radicalize their readership as Milton's Satan radicalizes Eve: by a mix of half-truths, malicious insinuation, and lies. Watkins' evidence, that is, seems disturbingly close to the Platonic argument against democracy: namely, that too many of the people can be fooled too much of the time.
This is a careful, provocative, and intelligent book. My only criticism, beyond the usual handful of minor reservations, has to do with Watkins' repeated appeal to an undefined "absolutism" as that which representations of Elizabeth challenged. At moments, the book seems to view "absolutism" as holding that monarchs possessed "a sanctity that superseded every other principle" and were "exempt ... from the constraints of common law" (96)--and to imply that prior to the seventeenth century this sort of mystical royalism had been the unquestioned norm. Having defined orthodoxy in such fantastically exalted terms, Watkins has no trouble finding subversion in almost every text he discusses. Yet, however untenable its notion of "old absolutist figurations of monarchy" (55), Representing Elizabeth yields more than enough good fruit to make one ignore the straw man.
University of California, Los Angeles
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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