The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

Dustin Griffin
New York University

Few English monarchs still resonate in both the scholarly and the popular imagination, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as much as Elizabeth I, whether she is regarded as the embodiment of England's heroic age, as the masterful pilot through treacherous court waters, or as the publicly mannish virgin whose private desires were suppressed for reasons of state.   As two recent books show, Elizabeth, who during her lifetime carefully controlled any public representation of herself, was soon after her death subjected to a stream of representations that perhaps tell us more about the culture for which the representations were created than about the queen herself.

John Watkins's Representing Elizabeth in Stuart England: Literature, History, Sovereignty (Cambridge University Press, 2002), examines on the changes in the ways in which Elizabeth was represented, in literary works and historical narrative, over the course of “the Stuart century” (1603–1714), and more particularly, the ways in which the present makes use of the past to advance its own political ends.   Watkins declares his intention to locate representations of her in the seventeenth century's “debates over the nature of sovereignty,” but his account focuses less on abstract questions than on practical ones—were the Stuarts (especially James I and Charles I) to be regarded as true successors of Tudor Elizabeth, or not? How can Elizabeth be used to rally support for her successors, or to discredit them? As Watkins (acknowledging previous scholars) makes very clear, Elizabeth was an “icon,” a figure to whom both Royalists and their adversaries at court, and even Commonwealthsmen, might appeal.   Admiration of Elizabeth by Jacobean writers might be a sign of opposition to the court, or it might be “fully compatible with support for James” (39).   Given the ambiguities of her character and her monarchical style, Elizabeth could serve as a model for royal absolutism or for constitutionalism, a cunning political manager of competing factions, a Protestant hero in the eternal war against the papists, or a champion of the via media between extremes of any kind.   What especially interests Watkins is that even writers who took up her example in order to celebrate her inadvertently displayed the dark underside of her rule.   And he shows that early seventeenth-century accounts, designed as celebrations, were used by later critics of Elizabeth to advance quite different purposes.

Watkins is strongest and most persuasive on the first half of the century (through the Civil War), weakest and least persuasive when he looks ahead to the eighteenth century, a period, he claims, in which the monarchy “lost most of its political power,” a world “dominated by prime ministers and party politics,” a world in which a “full-fledged bourgeois society” began to emerge.   In his view of the eighteenth century Watkins is more Whiggish (and even neo-Marxist) than he realizes, and seems unacquainted with the work of historians who have argued that the Hanoverian monarchs remained powerful figures, or that England remained dominated by crown, church, and landed interests until the Reform Bill of 1832.

He keeps his eye on the crucial features of the political context and pauses from time to time to examine influential “representations” of Elizabeth in both literary and historical texts.   One of the strengths of Watkins's book is its determination to cast a wide net, and to look beyond standard examples.   His key literary texts are Heywood's two-part play from 1606, If You Know Not Me , several “secret histories” of Elizabeth from the Restoration period, and plays from the 1680s by the little-remembered John Banks.   The chief historical examples for the pre-Civil War period are Robert Naunton's “influential” but “understudied” (69) Fragmenta Regalia (1641), William Camden's much-better-known Annals (1635), and Fulke Greville's dedication of his works to Sidney (not published until 1651).   Representing the Restoration period are Francis Osborne's Traditional Memoirs of Queen Elizabeth (1658), a letter of advice from the Duke of Newcastle to Charles II (1660), Clarendon's Difference between . . . The Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Essex (written in the early 1630s but published later), and Edmund Bohun's Character of Queen Elizabeth (1693).   The inclination to seek out unfamiliar examples sometimes leads him to texts that might be dismissed as merely curious and anomalous.   In the first chapter he discusses a private letter, surviving in one copy, with apparently limited circulation, and unknown to the writer's contemporaries, and in chapter six an unpublished document—Watkins himself calls it “eccentric” and “bizarre”—that was reviewed by the Privy Council in 1675.   Anne Bradstreet's elegy on the queen is anomalous not only as the sole “American” text in an otherwise “English” book but also as a uniquely proto-feminist praise of a female monarch who did not yield to male counselors.   The representations of Elizabeth in such “eccentric” documents are not likely to be either influential or representative.   Some attention to better known works—the emotionally vulnerable wife/queens in Dryden's All for Love and Rowe's Jane Shore —might actually have strengthened his argument.

On the whole his analyses of texts are broadly expository, laying out the ways in which a text represents Elizabeth according to a set of categories—absolutist, constitutionalist, manager of faction, dependent.   When he does venture into the ways in which literary representations are governed by conventions and take a particular “form,” he is less persuasive.   As he sees it, for example, a “Tacitean” suspicion that faction is endemic in courts, whether ancient Roman or modern English, is inherent in historical narratives about political intrigue, particularly those that adopt an annalistic (year-by-year) structure, based as they are on Tacitus's Annals .   Such “Tacitean” assumptions, he says, in effect serve to undermine early-seventeenth-century celebrations of Elizabeth.   But the Tacitean connection dissolves upon close inspection.   Annal form and suspicion of faction were not the property of a Tacitean tradition.   As Watkins acknowledges, Holinshed was one of the models for seventeenth-century historians, for example, and it has long been a commonplace that courts are sites of faction.   To protect Elizabeth by blaming her evil counselors is not an especially Tacitean strategy—it's one of the standard defenses available to any royal apologist.   But Watkins effectively shows that it was a dangerous strategy: it shifts the blame to wicked counselors, but it can also make a monarch look weak and governable.

In the final decades of the “Stuart century,” Watkins believes, “something new” emerged in the representations of Elizabeth.   No longer a practical model for a monarch, she was represented as a private person—a suffering princess, a secret lover, even a tragic figure—in “secret histories” initially imported from France.   This is a largely-unexplored vein of material, if noticed at all usually dismissed as pot-boiling trash.   But it may well signal something culturally significant, if only because the age which witnessed the emergence of a “public sphere” simultaneously displayed a keen appetite for private scandal and “secret history.” However, inferring a “political ideology” from such texts is tricky.   Sometimes Watkins assumes that a work exposing the private vices and weaknesses of the high and mighty must reflect a “powerful critique of absolutism.” But this assumption founders on Rochester's lampoons on Charles II.   Sometimes he assumes that focusing on the sex lives of monarchs is a means of “resisting absolutist encroachments on private life” (162), reflecting a “Whig ideology of the sovereign individual” (185).   That assumption founders on the Love vs. Honor debates in Restoration heroic plays.   Watkins himself later concedes that secret histories are “contradictory works whose antithetical values could be appropriated by members of opposing political parties” (172).

The closing chapter argues that Elizabeth recedes into the political background, in part because of changed political circumstances, in part because the glorious monarch had been converted into a suffering subject.   Furthermore, in an age when female monarchs (Mary and Anne) were married and even domestic, it was difficult to regard famously-unmarried Elizabeth as a model.   But in fact, as Watkins knows, both Mary and Anne (especially the latter) publicly compared themselves to their Tudor predecessor, and were celebrated as a “second Elizabeth” by Lady Chudleigh, Oldmixon, and Blackmore.   Watkins's reply is to claim that Anne was not “convincing” in her role as Elizabeth redux.   I wonder whether any of Anne's predecessors was in fact any more convincing, and suspect that it is Watkins's thesis (Elizabeth is transformed from political model to suffering woman) that obliges him to dismiss Elizabeth's political importance after 1700.   He cites the allusion to Elizabeth in Pope's “Windsor Forest,” but dismisses it as somehow quaintly irrelevant in the new mercantile world that, so Watkins claims, Pope unequivocally champions.   But the many readers of Pope who find his poem very ambivalent about the alleged gains of the emerging imperial England might well regard his invocation of the Elizabethan past as powerfully nostalgic for a lost innocence.

The sharpest challenge to Watkins's reading of the diminished presence of Elizabeth after 1700 is Jack Lynch's The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson (Cambridge University Press, 2003).   As Lynch shows, many writers in the eighteenth century regarded her reign as “the favourite period of English greatness” (68).   Volumes of documents from her era were published in Gilbert Burnet's History of the Reformation (1681–1753), Thomas Rymer's Foedera (1704–1735), and Thomas Birch's Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1754).   She was widely admired by historians, commonly hailed as having struck an ideal balance between crown and parliament, though Whiggish writers remembered the constitutionalist, and Tory writers the imperious wielder of the prerogative.   And she was a sort of political hero for such writers as Lyttelton and the “Patriot” group that gathered around the Prince of Wales.   In a manner that will be familiar to readers of Watkins, Elizabeth the resolute adversary of Spanish power was commonly praised in the 1730s in order to discredit Sir Robert Walpole, accused of being insufficiently responsive to the threat of Spain.   (Lynch acutely proposes that one of the key contrasts in Johnson's “London” is “now vs. then.”)   Although the eighteenth-century church faced issues and problems very different from those that faced Hooker, Elizabeth remained a model for the Anglican via media.

But Lynch is not primarily interested in Elizabeth, or in representations of her.   Like Watkins, he examines what he calls “the history of literary history,” in this case the ways in which the eighteenth century (and especially the writers in the latter part of the century) understood the accomplishment of English writers and scholars in the previous age, and, most important, how they conceived their relationship to that earlier age.   In some respects, as Lynch shows, the writers of the “Age of Johnson” (and especially Johnson himself) looked back to the writers of the “Age of Elizabeth” as exemplary figures, models for their own work as poets, critics, and scholars.   But in other respects they were acutely aware of the gap that separated them from the great writers of “the last age,” a gap that not only measured temporal distance but marked the difference (in Thomas Gray's terms) between the great and the merely good.   But just as they had a painful sense of a falling off in power from past to present (“The second temple was not like the first”), they took pride in constructing and repeating a narrative of “improvement” and “progress” from crudeness toward politeness, correctness, and rational elegance.   To his credit, Lynch does not harness his argument to a reductive thesis.   He allows for the full complexity of the conflicting ways in which “the Age of Johnson” imagined “the Age of Elizabeth.” If the first part of his book emphasizes the affinities that eighteenth-century writers sensed between their own age and that of Elizabeth, the latter part acknowledges more fully that Johnson and his contemporaries strongly sensed the differences.

For Lynch the “Age of Elizabeth” denominates a period beginning a little before her accession in 1558 and extending long after her death in 1603, even up to the Restoration.   Looking at “the long Age-of-Elizabeth” (as he wittily calls it) may entail a little loss of sharpness of focus, but it enables Lynch to discuss not only the writers of the “Renaissance”—Shakespeare, Spenser, and their contemporaries—but also the “17 th Century”—above all Jonson and Milton.   While other literary historians have looked back at the “last age” from the point of view of the eighteenth century, Lynch is unusual in not limiting himself to the “literary” landscape: he helps us to understand the importance to later writers not just of Shakespeare and Spenser but also of Hooker, not just Elizabethan poetry, but the queen herself, the makers of the English Reformation, and the great English and European scholars (notably Scaliger, Lipsius, and Grotius). In the broadest sense Lynch's view of the way the eighteenth-century present regarded the Elizabethan past derives from W. J. Bate, though he complicates the idea that the past is primarily a “burden.”   This is perhaps clearest in his account of the familiar narrative about the “progress” of English poetry.   Lynch also looks for theoretical orientation to Linda Colley's argument about the ways in which eighteenth-century Britain constructed its identity by means of defining itself against absolutist and papist France.   As Lynch reads the eighteenth century's view of its past, he constantly focuses on the ways in which “the Age of Johnson” achieved its “identity” in part by its conceptualization of its predecessors in “the Age of Elizabeth.” He even argues that dictionary-making, in Johnson's hands, becomes an expression of English “nationalism,” though he is aware that some readers will think he presses this point more than his evidence would justify. Like Watkins, Lynch writes a lucid and fluent prose.   And like him too he brings to bear the fruits of wide reading, though he focuses more than does Watkins on literary texts and on canonical writers (Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson).