Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – Elizabeth Renaissance Prince, Lisa Hilton Read 7/12/15

This book was exactly the kind of biography of Elizabeth I that I wanted to read. It doesn’t deal with the tired subject of Elizabeth’s sex life which I find utterly uninteresting. Instead it discusses her image as a Renaissance Prince that is a modern politician rather than a Medieval ruler.

Hilton uses this biography as a means to discuss an idea of Elizabeth rather than as a record of her life. It is the kind of biography I really enjoy much like Mad World as a biography of Evelyn Waugh.  Told chronologically it follows the key events of Elizabeth’s life that show her to be a shrewd politician rather than as the romantic image of Gloriana. From the uncertain beginning of her life as an illegitimate child of Henry VIII we see how Elizabeth learnt the crucial necessity of self preservation. We see how the sexual indiscretion with Thomas Seymour nearly cost Elizabeth her life and how she learnt the importance of self image and reputation. From learning her past we she how her opinions are shaped and as a result can better understand the mythical being that Elizabeth I came to be.

I felt as if the very first chapter of this book were a test for the reader to overcome. It felt as if it was there to put off anybody who had accidentally picked up this book in the hopes of reading a conspiracy theory about how Elizabeth was secretly a man. In fact much to my pleasure Hilton frequently throughout the book dismisses many of the more far fetched myths about Elizabeth that seem to have crept in to the public conciousness. She is very discerning about Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother, something which is always romanticised and infuriates me, and she does a brilliant job of clarifying the relationships Elizabeth had with her many suitors. I understand much more about the rituals of courtly love and their political importance as a result of Elizabeth Renaissance Prince, Lisa Hilton really manages to portray the heighten emotional state of the Elizabethan court. It makes for very refreshing reading.

I will admit at times that this book did get a little too heavy for me. I am pretty good at ploughing through books I don’t like and I really had to push about halfway through this one. There are lots of references to classical images that I didn’t fully understand. Crucial to Elizabeth’s political appearance were references to figures from antiquity and knowing nothing about ancient history made it very difficult to follow. Perhaps just a footnote every now and then explaining some of the more obscure and intertwining myths would have made all the difference.

On the whole I am really impressed with this book. It has been incredibly useful in terms of my dissertation and I was able to enjoy parts of it like I would fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anyone looking for a new perspective on the Virgin Queen.

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Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor Read 11/9/15

For some reason when I think of the first Queen of England I always think of Elizabeth I, even though her sister Mary ruled for 5 years before her. Perhaps this is a testament to the impression that Elizabeth I had on British history. Perhaps it is just because she has become almost a myth. I don’t know. What I do know is that I hadn’t heard of any of the other women that make up Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves.

The book explores the curious position that England found itself in when in 1553 all nine candidates to succeed Edward VI were female. Through English history the laws of succession were blurry and bloodstained but there had always been men to fight for the throne. Now for the first time there was no option but for a women to rule. This was a society that saw women as inferior. How could a women rule over her people if she was inferior to half of them? Castor explores how this dilemma had been raging long before the start of the Tudor dynasty.

She-Wolves follows the stories of 4 women who paved the way for Lady Jane Grey, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou each had to battle against the disadvantage of their sex and fight for their position in the world. Most have suffered the prejudices of their time and were resigned to history as ‘she-wolves’ ungodly creatures that went against the natural order (thank you Shakespeare).

Castor does a great job of bringing such far off history to life. She acknowledges that the sources she is using are often biased, often exclude the women involved entirely and she has to piece together the story from where they are conspicuous in their absence. This book is a hideous reminder of the fact our society is built on over a thousand years of women not being recorded in their own stories. Castor doesn’t go into the sexism too deeply, frankly she doesn’t need to it speaks for itself. What she does do is paint an honest picture of the women warts and all. They aren’t portrayed as heavenly martyrs fighting against the injustice of their world. They make mistakes, are headstrong and as a result are easier to empathise with.On the surface I have nothing in common with a 12th century queen but Castor tells the story in such a way that I can understand the motivations behind these women’s actions.

I love the structure of this book plus the frequent family trees. By book ending the stories of the earlier queens with that of the Tudor succession it was easier to see the precedent that Mary and Elizabeth had to fight against. In relation to the 16th century queens, it made me realise the impact the Renaissance had in allowing a women to rule of her own accord. Henry VIII was paranoid that his lack of a male heir would result in civil war but I don’t think he counted on the change of attitude that came with humanist thinking. Through education Mary and Elizabeth were able to prove their worth, if they couldn’t be men, they could be the best of women. Through contrast with the events of the past Castor highlights what an incredible achievement it was that England ever had a Queen Regnant.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anyone interest in feminist history.    

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