A Stupid Renaissance Woman: Elizabeth I
Today I have another of CW’s biographies for your consideration, and, like the short plays I’ve been summarizing recently, this is the best of the bunch. If you read just one of the several biographies CW wrote, read Elizabeth I. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s the shortest. But, more importantly, it is more lively, comprehensible, and interesting than the others. As Grevel Lindop writes in The Third Inkling:
Williams was not a good biographer. He had neither time nor skill for research into original sources (though he did sometimes consult published state papers), and his biographies are badly overwritten. This had much to do with length: the 1936 Queen Elizabeth, at 186 pages, is quite a good read, whereas the other biographies, twice the length, are at times so manned as to be almost incomprehensible.
It is rather a good read, but it is based upon the same assumption as CW’s other biographical studies: It takes for granted that the reader is already intimately familiar with the people, places, events, and details of the subject’s life, so it does not attempt to educate. Rather, it tries to capture some quintessence of the person and/or of the times. This is frustrating to me, because I do NOT know every detail of the lives of Elizabeth I, James I, Francis Bacon, etc. When he writes about The Earl, The Edict, The Problem, The Law in Question, The Plot, I am often at a loss to know to which of the many earls, edicts, problems, laws, and plots he refers. I find myself goggling half the stuff he talks about (which does lead down many fascinating rabbit trails, granted).
in his writing Williams too often seems to be speaking urgently, passionately…. to himself. It’s as if the imaginary listener or reader to whom he is addressing himself is too much like himself. He seems to have had trouble really knowing other people; either they are enrolled, in his mind, in some fantastic play, or (my impression of CW at Inklings meetings) he is “performing” for them and feels they are performing for him. Thus on the one hand he wants to be a writer dealing in an enlightening and profound way with the great realities, and yet his writing often seems rather unreal.
Yes! I agree! He is writing to himself. He assumes we have already read all the same books he has read and had the same thoughts about them.
This is certainly the case with the biographies. He assumes a certain education—which, okay, maybe he could assume at the time, if all of his audience members where British white males of a particular age and economic status—but that’s a pretty limited audience. Lindop goes on to note, surprised, that most of CW’s biographies received tolerant reviews. I can only imagine that they were from that limited audience.
However! I’m not here merely to condemn. If you happen to be something of an expert in Elizabethan history and politics, you will probably love these biographies. If you are, by the way, I’d love to have you write something evaluating his interpretation of the times, as I am not equipped to do so. He seems well aware of scholarly debates on the subject, so that’s impressive.
But his skill lies in getting to the heart of a long-dead person’s character, or at least of convincing the reader that he has done so. And in this short look at Elizabeth Tudor, he does just that. It is more of a character sketch than a biography, making sweeping statements about her intellect, her emotional life, and her theology. I came away with the impression of a woman with a brilliant intellect, a remarkable power of self-command, more than her fair share of personal charm and charisma, less than she needed of doctrinal precision, and just barely enough political savvy to keep the British empire afloat during her long and tempestuous life. I think Williams likes Elizabeth; he certainly admires her. He also does not hesitate to criticize her, but he always attempts to provide practical or psychological explanations for her decisions, however rash or illogical they may appear to history’s eye.
Perhaps more interestingly to readers of this blog, Shakespeare hovers behind the biography, a rarely-mentioned but powerful presence. Williams treats Shakespeare like some huge institutional or natural phenomenon, like the Church or the Weather. Shakespeare, CW seems to assume, established the atmosphere of the times—or perhaps he WAS that atmosphere, or, more oddly still, perhaps that atmosphere was created preparatory to his appearance so that the times were ready to be his when he arrived. Remember, simple chronological cause-and-effect wasn’t very high on CW’s priority list. He writes of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I:
Without his genius of exploration and expression, she had in her life a kind of kinship with the method of his genius. She is an active and debased caricature of his power, as egoistic as that was necessarily unegoistic. …the general title of the plays, and of their method, might be The Way Things Happen. It is hers also. She happened, and she continued to happen.
And there, buried in the middle of a generalization about Elizabeth’s personality and rule, is an insightful, profound, universalizing piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare: “the general title of the plays … might be The Way Things Happen.” That’s very good. And yet it’s presented as a throw-away comment designed to support a bigger point about his subject. That’s CW for you.
There are lots of other interesting tidbits in this bio that I could point out, plus some seriously problematic claims. We could apply the fascinating idea, pointed out by Stephen Barber in a (yet unpublished?) work on CW’s literary criticism, that whatever CW wrote about someone else he was really saying about himself. I found this amusing and telling when CW said: “From almost any doctrinal point of view, she was something of a heretic” (82). Are you sure that’s about Queen Elizabeth, and not about a certain 20th-century Anglican occult master, my friend?
And then there are the problems: the racism and sexism that so many critics try to ignore or explain away. There are disturbing comments about slavery, such as the (historically true, but) upsetting observation that “Negro slaves were safer,” financially, than goods (87). This may have been the case from a purely economic point of view, but there is no condemnation of the slave trade in this book. Is CW assuming that we are all civilized readers, and we know that the slave trade was evil, and he doesn’t need to waste ink saying so? Or is the truth uglier (especially given his troubling depictions of slavery, blended with BDSM scenes, in his Arthurian poetry)?
And there is this infuriating, sickening passage:
Most women tend to be Calvinistic in their outlook upon this world, however this heresy may be checked by their intelligence, and even Elizabeth’s skeptical nature beheld the world as composed of the elect, who were her friends, and the reprobate, who were her enemies.
That is offensive in so many ways I can hardly begin to innumerate them. There’s the term “heresy” used for Calvinism! Um, excuse me. No, sir. There is the flippant insult against women’s intelligence: we’re so dumb, we can’t convince ourselves that God doesn’t have exactly the same friends we do. There’s the claim that women are less theologically astute than men. There’s the deep insult that we think our personal preferences are the same as eternal realities. There’s the reduction of women to shallow social creatures, incapable of real doctrinal or political perceptions. Whew. How backwards of him, eh?
Or is it? Sexism has long been rampant in the Christian church. Somehow, the Bible’s beautiful teachings that “in Christ there is no male or female,” the many radical actions of the early church to free women from oppression, have been lost. Instead, we have set up sickening, unbiblical doctrines of “complementarity” and one-way “submission” and false “headship.” I’ll tell you a story. This past Sunday, a 15-year-old boy told me that I was sinful because I color my hair. Of course I told him where to get off, but the really disturbing thing was yet to come: his parents backed him up. They refused to agree with my statement that no boy, no man, has any right to tell any woman what to do with her hair, her clothes, her makeup, her body. They asserted that men are naturally, spiritually higher than women and have a responsibility to protect women—which involves protecting women from their own sinfulness, which apparently includes the rebellious act of dying one’s hair an unnatural shade that God didn’t create as a hair color.
I’m serious. This happened in 21st-century America. What that brat of a teenage boy did is only a few steps away from turning into abuse as he grows into a man: the desire to control women’s behavior–or anyone’s behavior–very frequently turns into emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. And yet the church tolerates, even teaches, hideous doctrines of “complimentarity” that can be used by manipulative men to oppress women.
All this is to say that as a Calvinist woman who has frequently been the target of misogynistic language in a Christian setting, I could hardly be more concerned about statements like CW’s mockery of Elizabeth’s supposed ignorance in deciding who were and weren’t God’s elect. In a way, though, it’s a microcosm for CW’s whole method of writing biography: he makes enormous claims about a person’s character, psychology, and cognition, then sets out those imaginative strokes as if they are historical fact. What arrogance.
In contrast, check out Grevel Lindop’s biography of CW, which provides a refreshing contrast to the biographical methods of his subject. That’s a happy irony.