"Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne," by David Starkey. HarperCollins. 363 pages. $26.00.
Who was Queen Elizabeth I? Filmmakers would have it that she was the very model of a modern monarch-movie star. We've recently seen the Queen as presiding Renaissance don amid a Corleone-worthy web of plots in "Elizabeth," and collecting an Oscar via Judi Dench's wry portrayal in "Shakespeare in Love."
Soon Elizabeth may hit the small screen, and a sneak preview is available in David Starkey's engrossing "Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne." Starkey's book was the basis for his television series of the same name, a hit in England last spring that is expected to air on PBS in 2001.
Cambridge University historian Starkey focuses on the making of a queen, showing how the Princess Elizabeth's eventual accession was the less than inevitable result of myriad circumstances: Tudor history, familial infighting, religious reformation within England and the geopolitical gamesmanship of leaders across Europe. But surmounting all these other factors, in Starkey's account, are the steely will and subtle play of the princess herself.
So who is this latest Elizabeth? She is every bit her father's daughter, a patient and cunning player in the high-stakes political chess matches of her day. She is the astonishingly precocious child growing into an accomplished writer whose work is taken seriously by literary scholars today (her writings have just been published comprehensively for the first time by the University of Chicago Press). And she is the feeling sister whose regard for Queen Mary I was severely tested by her own will to rule and self-preservation, but seems to have never been wholly eradicated.
Their father, Henry VIII, paved the way for the half-sisters' plotting for the throne when he sloughed off wife after wife, producing potential heirs both Catholic and Protestant. "Bloody" Mary and Elizabeth were destined to play out in their own rivalry the shifting fortunes of their mothers: respectively, the Catholic Catherine of Aragon and the bewitching Protestant Anne Boleyn, who impertinently displaced Catherine as Henry's wife in 1533, and within the year gave birth to Elizabeth.
The beating heart of Starkey's history is his portrait of the tie between the sisters, by turns treacherous and tender. His Elizabeth is far from a pushover, but in her connections to father and sister she has a substantial emotional dimension that was missing from the movie versions of 1998.
It's risky business trying to psychologize world-historical figures like these, especially figures so far removed from us in time and culture. Starkey proceeds with appropriate caution, and only occasionally overreaches, as when comparing Henry to "a modern middle-aged executive" who "thought he was rediscovering his youth by sleeping with a sexy young woman."
That's a distorting anachronism, but for the most part "Elizabeth" promotes historical understanding, while keeping the pages turning. Starkey is especially good at bringing to life key figures among the extensive cast of supporting players, from the martyred Lady Jane Grey to the foxy Duke of Feria.
Balancing the emotional hooks and local color of good storytelling with the standards of responsible history, "Elizabeth" the book shows itself the very model of a worthy popular history.
Laura Demanski, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago, is writing a doctoral dissertation on British literature and culture at the end of the Victorian period. She previously worked at Simon and Schuster and the University of Chicago Press.