Michael Dobson and Nicola J Watson are the authors of England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy (Oxford, 2002). It is a guide to the nation’s 400-year obsession with the Virgin Queen.
“This is a deliberately miscellaneous selection, since one of the most extraordinary things about Elizabeth is the sheer range of material she has inspired, and continues to inspire, from Spenser’s Faerie Queene to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and beyond.”
1. Elizabeth I: Collected Works, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Janel Mueller and Leah S Marcus (2001)
The best way to get to know the historical Elizabeth is through her own writings. Her Collected Works brings together her speeches, poems, prayers and letters and make wonderful reading. The political speeches are sometimes masterpieces of cryptic evasiveness, but the letter she sent to Mary, Queen of Scots on learning about the blowing-up of Mary’s husband Lord Darnley has to be one of the most forthright documents in the English language.
2. Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I by Roy Strong (1987)
The second-best way to get to know the historical Elizabeth is through the dazzling array of portraits dating from her lifetime. Roy Strong’s Gloriana is a very handsome volume that is erudite, lucid and fascinatingly detailed about how these images were made and what they mean.
3. Elizabeth: The Exhibition Catalogue edited by David Starkey and Susan Doran (2003)
The National Maritime Museum celebrated the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth’s death in 2003 with splendidly dramatic exhibition. Anyone who missed it can still admire the lavishly-illustrated catalogue, full of helpful essays and stunning images.
4. Elizabeth and Essex: a tragic history by Lytton Strachey (1928)
We confess to a definite taste for the belles-lettres school of historical biography that flourished during the earlier 20th century. Lytton Strachey’s biography is a gloriously overwrought performance, a pioneering Bloomsbury exercise in psychological intuition which reveals as much about Strachey as it does about Elizabeth but is none the worse for that.
5. The Queens and the Hive by Edith Sitwell
Edith Sitwell’s poetic rhapsody does for Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots what Strachey did for Elizabeth and Essex; this is haunted and haunting stuff.
6. Gloriana by Benjamin Britten (1953)
It’s cheating to include an opera, but Gloriana, with its Strachey-based libretto by William Plomer, demands inclusion, not least for its heartbreaking ending in which the old queen can no longer sing romantic love arias but merely recites fragments of her historical speeches. Judith Barstow’s performance, which helped rehabilitate this opera after the resignation of Mrs Thatcher suddenly made it appear contemporary, remains definitive.
7. The Young Bess trilogy by Margaret Irwin
Among the classic historical novels about Elizabeth, Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess trilogy of the 1940s and early 1950s has probably stood up best; very accomplished, very well-researched, it’s a lot more demanding and adult than many of its imitators (and vastly more so than the saccharine film version, which cast Jean Simmonds as Elizabeth opposite Stewart Granger as a romantically laundered Admiral Seymour).
8. Firedrake’s Eye by Patricia Finney
Patricia Finney’s more recent trilogy – Firedrake’s Eye, Unicorn’s Blood and Gloriana’s Torch – is also lavishly researched, if a good deal more fantastical than Irwin’s brand of psychological realism permitted. Finney has one foot in the court and one in the Catholic underworld, and she has all sorts of literary tricks up her sleeve besides some very adept postmodern political plotting.
9. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
The first major historical novel about Elizabeth, with its wilful anachronisms and simultaneously dense and witty texture, is still one of the best. Sir Walter Scott’s classic pretty much invented 19th century mock-Tudor, and it’s still a sumptuous read long after the vogue for heavy solid black oak dining tables and leaded windows has passed.
10. She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I’s Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians by Alexandra Sheedy
Let us not forget the children. The 12-year-old Alexandra Sheedy produced She Was Nice to Mice in 1975, before growing up to abbreviate her first name to Ally and become a Hollywood actress. It’s a charming book, and the scene of the Queen’s death, with her beloved mice mourning in her hair, remains strangely haunting.