But Could She Cook?

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I; drawing by David Levine

This mistitled book contains a “generous selection” of Queen Elizabeth’s letters, speeches, poems, and prayers. It does not include her translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and other surviving translations, arguing that they are already available to scholars “in fairly convenient forms.” Yet the present volume is intended not for scholars but for a more general public that needs its Latin, French, and Italian translated and its English modernized and glossed when obsolete. The needs of the erudite will be met by a companion volume, not yet published, giving the texts in their original languages and spelling.

All the same, a good deal of careful research has gone into this more popular collection, which, as the editors claim, offers “a sustained, varied presentation of Elizabeth’s writings across generic boundaries in a single comprehensive scholarly edition.” In their view, the Queen’s writing has hitherto been disparaged or neglected, either because of her sex, or because we were so long deceived into accepting an “idealized aesthetics of timeless literary greatness”; now that we have given up that folly, we can take a juster view of the Queen as a writer. Here is a contradiction: if there is no such thing as literary greatness what use is it to argue that Elizabeth is a greater writer than the male-dominated literary tradition has allowed? I shall return to that question.

Quite understandably, the editors stress the difficulty of their task. Some of the material survives in the Queen’s hand or in early copies, but much of her writing must have been produced in collaboration with advisers. Some of the Queen’s speeches were made impromptu, to be recorded later, in differing versions, by her auditors. Her letters were frequently dictated, and she necessarily used on occasion an impersonal official style quite unlike that of her more spontaneous and informal efforts. The editors have gone to a lot of trouble to get at what they think are the best copy-texts, sternly excluding anything of uncertain authenticity, such as her celebrated rebuke to the Bishop of Ely (“Proud prelate, You know what you were before I made you what you are now. If you do not immediately comply with my request, I will unfrock you, by God”). They decide that this is a fabrication, made on the model of more verifiable scoldings.

Readers of the kind the editors seek to interest may find some of the annotation fussy and some of it meager. This is perhaps to say no more than that they suffer from a disease to which all commentators are liable, long since identified by Elizabeth’s contemporary Francis Bacon: they sometimes explain what needs no explanation and fail to comment on words and ideas not likely to be generally understood. For instance, they gloss the noun “thank” as “thanks,” and feel it necessary to translate the expression Vivat Regina!, puzzles which might well have been…

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