Three Renaissance scholars campaign to place Elizabeth I's writings in the literary canon
HER FATHER had her mother beheaded. Parliament declared her a bastard. Her half sister locked her in the Tower of London on suspicion of treason. As queen, she survived smallpox, plots to kill her, and the Spanish Armada. If suffering produces great art, Elizabeth I had what it takes.
Despite being a prolific and eloquent writer, however, the queen has been overlooked by most literary scholars. Recently, some Renaissance experts have made a bid for Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603), author. Three of them in particular are claiming that status for her, this summer publishing the most comprehensive collection of her writings ever gathered between two covers.
Making the case was not easy. The editors--Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose--spent more than 12 years searching for, transcribing, and editing manuscripts that were scattered among museums and private collections around Europe. The methods they used to compile Elizabeth I: Collected Works (University of Chicago Press) are not universally accepted among literary scholars. And their argument for Elizabeth as a literary figure relies on understandings of authorship that some in the field still refute.
It's not news to everyone that Elizabeth tried her hand at literature. As was the custom among nobility, she often exchanged messages with her associates in verse, and a few of the poems, prayers, and speeches she wrote have been collected or printed in anthologies of early modern writing. But Collected Works is the first volume to present an oeuvre: Beginning with juvenilia and spanning the 44 years of Elizabeth's reign, it includes 24 speeches, 15 poems, 39 prayers, and 103 letters determined by the editors to have been created by the Virgin Queen.
"People are only beginning to realize what a good writer she was," says Ms. Marcus, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University. "A lot of her success in government had to do with her skill at writing. When she put people down, they stayed down."
I trust you likewise do not forget that by me you were delivered, whilst you were hanging on the bough ready to fall into the mud, yea to be drowned in the dung.
That's Elizabeth speaking to Parliament in response to one of its many requests that she marry and ensure a successor. Pleas to wed .were a constant thorn in her side, and her angry responses were often rhythmic, alliterative, and punning: . . . when I call to mind how far from dutiful care, yea, rather how nigh a traitorous trick this tumbling cast did spring, I muse how men of wit can so hardly use that gift they hold. I marvel not much that bridleless colts do not know their rider's hand, whom bit of kingly rein did never snaffle yet ....
With such poetry even in her speeches, why hasn't Elizabeth been taken seriously as a writer before? In part, because her texts were so difficult to track down, according to other Renaissance scholars. "We didn't get one of those early editions that leads to a later edition," says Susan Frye, an associate professor of English at the University of Wyoming who argued in her book Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation (Oxford University Press, 1991) that the queen deserved to be considered as a writer.
In addition, just because you're queen doesn't mean you get into the men's club: Sixteenth-century women writers have begun to be taught widely only in the last 15 years. Perhaps most significantly, speeches, letters, and prayers traditionally have not been considered literary genres. Even Elizabeth's poems "were considered occasional pieces written in specific historical contexts, and so were considered suspect by literary standards that valued timelessness," says Ms. Rose, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the Institute for the Humanities there.
These days, of course, literature scholars are interested both in creating a canon of female writers and in looking beyond traditional genres. Ms. Mueller, a professor of English and dean of the humanities at the University of Chicago, persuaded the other editors to include more of Elizabeth's letters. Her exchanges with James VI of Scotland, Ms. Mueller argues, are brilliant combinations of sentiment and political savvy. The decision to include prayers, also at Ms. Mueller's urging, especially pleases Ms. Frye. "When we first started teaching 16th-century women writers, we were a bit apologetic that they were doing so much religious writing," she says. Including prayers in Collected Works is an acknowledgment of the new status of the form, a statement that scholars "are not going to be embarrassed by their piety."
Help me now, O God, for I have none other friends but Thee alone. And suffer me not (I beseech Thee) to build my foundation upon the sands, but upon the rock, whereby all blasts of blustering weather may have no power against me, amen.
--Princess Elizabeth's Prayer
in the Tower of London
Like the prayers, the poems often have a political context. Elizabeth usually did not want her poems circulated beyond the inner circle at court, for fear that they would be misread. One exception was "The Doubt of Future Foes" (see sidebar), which Elizabeth wrote to threaten her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (whom many Catholics believed was the rightful queen of England). The court distributed the poem with the rumor that one of Elizabeth's ladies in waiting had copied it. "Because it was written as a poem, it has a feeling of coterie, a boudoir quality," says Ms. Marcus. "The effect is that it seems what people are getting is the private mind of the queen." In other words, Elizabeth was a master of spin.
The editors of Collected Works refuse to separate traditionally literary texts from other documents. They also often include the letters, poems, and parliamentary petitions to which Elizabeth was responding, stressing her works in their cultural milieu. "Although few would contend that Elizabeth's writings are destined to have the same cultural impact in our time as Donne or Shakespeare, her work was arguably more visible during her own period than theirs, and it was certainly part of the same broad conversation among oral, manuscript, and printed texts," said Ms. Marcus, speaking at a conference panel on the book.
So, literature is a social artifact. That's old news in English departments, but Ms. Marcus says the editing of archival manuscripts is still catching up with literary theory. When more than one version of a text exists--as is often the case with Elizabeth's writings, particularly her speeches--most scholars still struggle to establish the original, or "authentic" one.
Ms. Marcus attempted to explode that notion in her book Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton (Routledge, 1996), arguing that changes to texts after they were composed, instead of being stumbling blocks to arriving at the "authentic" text, constituted the text as it was received and were therefore meaningful themselves.
That book was in part an attempt to work through issues raised while editing Elizabeth's speeches: Why were there often several versions of them, and why was it impossible to find Elizabeth's original drafts? "The Renaissance was a time when lots of things were done orally and by memory that now would be done in writing," Ms. Marcus says. "It became increasingly obvious, since we have so much material that she produced, that if there were drafts we would have found them." She determined that Elizabeth usually spoke extemporaneously or improvised from notes. Her speeches were then recorded by someone who had been present or transcribed from her dictation, and often sanitized with a particular audience in mind. A record of a conversation between Elizabeth and the Scottish ambassador in the early 1560's, for example, alleged that she said, "It is natural, indeed, for parents to favor the succession of their children, to be careful for it, to provide for it." After all, Elizabeth's subjects were still holding on to the hope that she would marry and produce an heir. But an early manuscript reproduced in Collected Works shows that she said exactly the opposite: "Princes cannot like their own children, those that should succeed unto them."
"Even an author as slenderly edited as Elizabeth I has required unediting," Ms. Marcus said at the conference. Previous editors who created composite texts "confounded versions that may have been transcribed from very different political or cultural perspectives, or for different purposes," or favored published versions, which may have lost the energy and directness of the speech as it was first recorded. She and her colleagues, in contrast, often include two or more versions of a speech side by side.
To some in the field, that undermines their case for Elizabeth as an author. The speeches "are the most vexed area for talking about authorship," says Louis A. Montrose, a professor of English at the University of California at San Diego who has written about gender and power in Elizabethan culture. "Many of them are memorial reconstructions. It's very much a shared authorship, and any claims for Elizabeth as a writer are thrown into question by the nature of the way the speeches have come down to us."
To the contrary, say the editors. "People can't find one stable text, and so they say she didn't do it," says Ms. Marcus. "But that's the way material from that period works. If a text was circulated as Elizabeth's, and there's no compelling evidence against her authorship, we included it. We're interested in the way she allowed herself to be constructed."
To "unedit" is to refuse to privilege one text over another, but it's also to refuse to modernize spelling and punctuation. It is a truism of editorial theory that modernization is a form of interpretation, and Ms. Marcus argued that case forcefully in Unediting the Renaissance. For Collected Works, though, the editors--after much decided to modernize the texts. When Elizabeth tells Parliament that she "happely chose this kind of life in which I yet live," the editors transcribe it as "happily." "Happely" was also a Renaissance spelling for "haply," though, or "by chance"--quite a different 'meaning. In that case, the editors signal their decision with a footnote, but they did not flag every potential ambiguity.
That troubles some Renaissance scholars. "You lose so much of the richness of the language," says Ms. Frye. "No one ever thinks to modernize Spenser, and there's so much wordplay in his writing. There's so much wordplay in Elizabeth's writings, too. Selecting one spelling loses that."
Shakespeare, by contrast, is usually modernized, and his work is much more widely known. "Those authors who have been modernized are the ones who are the most important to us as a culture," says Ms. Marcus. "This is an interim step that makes Elizabeth available to us as an author. It's elevating her to that status." She and Ms. Mueller are currently working on another volume, due out from Chicago in 2002, that will present typographical renderings of Elizabeth's handwritten texts, showing where she made changes. "People will be able in at least a few key texts to study a process of self-revision which is totally smoothed over in the modernized volume," says Ms. Mueller. The volume will also include originals of texts Elizabeth composed in French, Latin, Italian, Greek, and Spanish.
"My own sense is that the editors have been absolutely right in modernizing Elizabeth's texts," says Constance Jordan, a professor of English at Claremont Graduate University. "Her spelling is erratic, her handwriting is difficult, her command of foreign languages is idiosyncratic, and the editors have done a wonderful job of sorting through these technical difficulties."
No matter what they think about modernizing the texts or about whether Elizabeth passes the test for author, scholars of Elizabethan England agree that the Collected Works will make a variety of new studies possible. "It will help give literary scholars a more nuanced and wide-ranging sense of Elizabeth and her writings, her interests, and her political strategies," says Mr. Montrose.
Ms. Rose herself, for example, is writing a book about gender and heroism in early modern English literature that will explore how Elizabeth justified her authority in an era that considered women second-class citizens. Other scholars have pointed out how Elizabeth cast herself as the exception to the rule by virtue of her kingly position. Addressing troops at Tilbury in 1588, for example, she said: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of King of England, too." Having so many speeches together for the first time, Ms. Rose says, will allow people to see that the queen also defined her authority in what feminist scholars have argued are female terms: on the basis of her experience in life. Elizabeth's words to Parliament about how to deal with Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, remind her listeners of her trials and tribulations:
And for your sakes it is that I desire to live, to keep you from a worse. For as for me, I assure you I find no great cause I should be fond to live; I take no such pleasure in it that I should much wish it, nor conceive such terror in death that I should greatly fear it .... I have had good experience and trial of this world: I know what it is to be a subject, what to be a sovereign; what to have good neighbors, and sometime meet evil willers. I have found treason in trust, seen great benefits little regarded, and instead of gratefulness, courses of purpose to cross.
"The things she says about death are amazing," says Ms. Rose. "She turns the values of male heroism around: 'Dying is easy; living is hard.'"
As more studies are done using Elizabeth's collected works as evidence, Ms. Rose and her coeditors believe the queen's position in the literary canon will be cemented. Meanwhile, other scholars are working on collections that focus on Elizabeth's poems or present even more versions of her speeches.
"It's a first step," says Ms. Marcus, of Collected Works. "A rallying cry."
The doubt of future foes
PHOTO (COLOR): Queen Elizabeth I, ruler, reformer, warrior--and writer--is portrayed by an unknown artist, about the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
PHOTO (COLOR): Queen Elizabeth I's second reply to a Parliamentary petition calling for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots shows Elizabeth's corrections.
By Jennifer K. Ruark