Monday 21 January 2013
J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I
Hunting down and reading books about Elizabeth I has become a minor hobby of mine. On each trip to the library, I dutifully check history and biography shelves, looking for anything on the famous queen. Sometimes my spoils don't look too promising. J.E. Neale's Queen Elizabeth I did not look promising at all. First published in 1933, current edition with a distinct 'Penguin classics' look*, it does not offer literary ecstasy at first sight. Oh well, I sighed, a dedicated reviewer should be ready for some sacrifices, right?
Not right at all! The book turned out to be the best of Elizabeth's biographies I have read so far, and I've read quite a few.
Queen Elizabeth I reads like a thriller (ok, ok, I am exaggerating, but only slightly). You really want to know what happens next. All the dash and romance of Gloriana's age is incorporated into the narrative and yet, this is top class academic history, not some shady historical fiction. Complex issues of court and international politics are explained, sources quoted, scientific doubts expressed. Elizabeth's life is analysed from cradle to grave. Everything you can ask for from a good biography of a famous monarch is there.
Sure, like all historians, Neale wrote his version of history. He gallantly defended Her Royal Majesty from any charges other scholars may have made against her - the picture he painted is invariably positive. The effect is quite charming, but you may wish to compare his account with some less benign biographies, just to see where others disagree.
Otherwise, Queen Elizabeth I is flawless.
*Don't get me wrong here, I have nothing against Penguin classics, but they are not exactly books you stay up all night for, are they?