Strachey did not intend Elizabeth and Essex for an audience limited to young adults, but the book’s lack of scholarly depth makes it suitable as an introductory work for the student who wishes to explore the often complicated relationships that existed between Elizabeth I and the men and women who made up her court. Yet it must be used with caution: Strachey, like the filmmakers and novelists whom he inspired, often omitted or changed the facts to suit his narrative. More interested in painting with words than in pursuing historical truth, he often misleads and confuses the novice. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of language, Strachey is a master whose style bears emulation. When used in conjunction with other biographies of Elizabeth I, such as Sir John E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth (1934) or Elizabeth Jenkins’ Elizabeth the Great (1958), Elizabeth and Essex can prove very useful in training the young reader to evaluate the merits of a biographical study.
This work often resembles a duel between the male and female principles in nature, between the impulsive personality and its more calculating counterpart, and between ambition and power; it also depicts the eternal struggle between youth and age. In each instance, Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, represents the former principle and Elizabeth I, the latter. Every event related by the author is seen as but another move in the deadly game of parry and...
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In a discipline that often lacks flair and a sense of the melodramatic, Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex has enjoyed a popularity with audiences of all ages because it possesses those very qualities. The book reads as the public imagines biography ought to read: with excitement and emotion. It has a particular appeal to younger readers because the central narrative is not obscured by a wealth of data. The work is popular history in the best and the worst senses of that designation; the vividness of the narrative almost compensates for the lack of accuracy.
Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex has enjoyed such popularity because it is well written, but there is another reason for its inclusion in any study of early twentieth century biographies: It reveals much about Strachey himself and about the literary set to which he belonged. His Queen Victoria, first published in 1921, created a sensation by dismissing the late queen-empress as a symbol of an era of repressive prudery. While Strachey was not a particularly vocal misogynist, his disdain for women in positions of power is also strongly evident in Elizabeth and Essex. This rather subtle dismissal of female rulers provoked numerous scholarly responses in the decades after Strachey’s death, which bear examination by the serious young scholar. Of particular importance in this respect is Susan Bassnett’s Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective (1988).