NOT SO GLORIANA?
By A N Wilson (Hutchinson 432pp £25)
AT A STATE banquet in Dublin in May of this year, the Queen remarked: ‘With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.’ Her speech was warmly received as a formal British admission of past mistakes and the painstaking ‘loosening’ of ‘a knot of history’. A N Wilson, too, sees the drawing of a line under the past, but argues in The Elizabethans that it is something even more. He believes that settlement in Ireland means that we c an never s e e Br i t i s h – and s peci f i c a l l y English – pol i cy towards Ireland as we used to. He makes the same point about the slave trade. The inhumanity we now recognise must, he believes, alter the way we see the maritime exploits of Hawkins, Drake and the Elizabethan ‘sea-dogs’. According to Wilson, modern history started with the reign of Queen Elizabeth but the myth that grew up and made sense of it – nationalism, Protestantism, the Church of England, overseas exploration and expansion – no longer has any credibility. That posed the fundamental problem he f aced in wr iting this book. How could he write about the E l i z abethans without be i ng ‘unimaginatively judgemental’? That is ‘the Difficulty’ – of which more anon.
should have used – you shouldn’t attempt Elizabethan religion without reading Patrick Collinson – and some of it is rather old hat, so don’t take everything as gospel. But the mistakes are mostly venial, except for the claim that Humphrey and Adr ian Gilbert discovered the Northwest Passage and the traitor Christopher Blount being confused with Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who pacified Ireland. One can, of course, challenge Wilson’s impressionism, but there is no doubt about the overall power of the pictures he draws. Particularly when he is consider ing the great literary figures – Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare – there i s genuine excitement and empathy. Nor is there any doubt about the author’s insight and his capacity to make fruitful and original connections. The final chapter of the book links Cranmer, the concerns of the country in the queen’s final months, and the plot of Hamlet. Nor is Wilson
Elizabeth: gloves off averse to expressing challenging opinions. It takes courage to dismiss t he f amous ‘ Pr i ncely P l e a s u re s ’ o f Kenilwor t h a s ‘meaningless vulgarity’, especially since English Heritage has just spent a mint of money to recreate the garden. What, then, of Wilson’s ‘Difficulty’? This crops up several times. He is embarrassed about Protestantism and nationalism, but never theless believes that the defeat of the Ar mada was supremely important. It’s a dilemma that allows him to describe the episode as ‘a question of narrow theology being settled by a great sea battle’. He is torn between his love for the poet Spenser and his horror at Spenser the coloniser, who argued for an Ir ish ‘Final Solution’. Wilson is not alone in thinking this way. A good many citizens of Br i tain are equally
The book is constructed in four sections, each covering a decade or so of Elizabeth’s reign, but not with a linear narrative. Wilson selects topics for consideration from each decade. Some are thematic, for example the role of ceremonial in constructing the image of the queen. Others focus on individuals such as Sir Philip Sidney or events such as the Armada. Indeed, a better title for the book would omit the definite article. These vignettes and their loving depiction of people and episodes are its strength. Wilson collects his material from impressively diverse sources. He omits some he uncomfortable with its history, particularly given the multicultural and multiethnic nature of the country today. The USA lives by its foundation myth – hence all its citizens are assumed to buy into one historical identity, however recent their arrival. Wilson’s contention is that there is no life left in the British equivalent – ‘Our Island Story’. This loss of a paradigm easily leads to the conviction that modern values must now determine attitudes to the past. That underlies more than one current history syllabus and also the often heard assertion that the only consideration that justifies studying the past is relevance to the present. How many students know as much about the English Civil War as about Nazi Germany? ☛
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011