Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2000. xxiv+446+18 illus. ISBN 0 226 504646
Douglas Bruster
University of Texas at Austin

Bruster, Douglas. "Review of Elizabeth I: Collected Works." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 20.1-9 <URL:
  1. This is a half scholarly, half popular collection of Elizabeth I's writings. Its popular aspects are literally writ large on the book, which sports, on its cover, an embossed capital "E" decorated with scroll work; to mark one's place, the book offers a red silk ribbon. It looks, in short, like a general reader's fantasy of a scholarly tome. Unfortunately, this "look" is more than a mere bid, on the part of the press, to sell copies to readers enchanted with the recent Hollywood Elizabeth. Instead, this combination of fantasy with scholarship affects every part of this book and, exacerbated by questionable editorial decisions, often compromises its usefulness to scholars and students alike.

  2. The problems start with this volume's organization. Elizabeth I: Collected Works (hereafter EICW) divides its materials into four chronological sections: 1553-1558; 1558-1572; 1572-1587; and 1588-1603. Within these chronological sections the editors group Elizabeth's writings by mode: speeches are followed by letters, poems, and then prayers. (There are of course no speeches in the first section, which represents the years prior to her accession). And although there is some merit in this compromise between formal and historicist impulses, it has clear drawbacks as an organizing principle. This is especially so for one who reads this book serially: it can be disconcerting, for instance, to encounter Essex's death on one page and the Armada sinking a few pages later.

  3. Even more consequential, however, is the fact that these selections are offered in modernized spelling, and many of them are translations of foreign-language and Latin originals. The decision to translate is ironic, given that EICW does not include any of Elizabeth's own important translations--such as, for instance, her English version of Margaret of Navarre's Godly Meditation of the Christian Soul. More troubling is the decision to regularize Elizabeth's writings through modernized spelling and format. These decisions leave us with not an early modern monarch, but a falsely modern one. It is as though EICW, in its pervasive accommodation to modern tastes, were published as a handbook for the next generation of screenwriters eager to capitalize on what the press's web site calls "the pious yet ruthless Virgin Queen."

  4. The preceding aspects of EICW are the result of comprehensive decisions made about format and structure. In the end, however, they are less detrimental to the book than are a host of local editorial choices and interventions. While these scholarly shortcomings will in no way lessen this volume's reception amongst general readers, or even amongst those within the academy for whom the contingencies of Elizabeth's sex and political station offer an irresistible rationale for canonizing her writings, they do lessen EICW's reliability as an aid to scholarship, and as such bear examination.

  5. Most troubling here is a bizarre, and persistent, begging of questions when attribution is involved. Put briefly, the editors seem to have selected the pieces they liked, and fashioned reasons for that selection in hindsight. Often a "principle" behind attribution waffles when a rich text is involved. In some instances, for example, it is argued that contemporary attribution to Elizabeth is good evidence for including a piece; at another place, it is hinted that the absence of contemporary attribution may support her authorship: "given the private, even secret nature of Elizabeth's poetic production at court, manuscript attribution was not to be expected from her intimates" (305). Clearly one cannot have it both ways.

  6. Too often in EICW, legend is printed and transformed into fact through editorial commentary. Thus the editors reproduce the hoary verses from Woodstock, one purportedly written "on a window frame," the other on a glass window with a diamond, making no acknowledgment that an "Elizabeth" industry obviously existed during and shortly after her lifetime, as well as today, and that that industry makes it dangerous to accept "diamond writing" (for example) as fact. Particularly painful among the evasions concerning attribution was this volume's neglect of the challenging questions that have been raised about the Tilbury speech. EICW dismisses such questions without giving them due credit, and without providing so much as one bibliographical reference to the debate.

  7. Bad faith characterizes many glosses and statements in the collection. Consider the following representative sentence from the book's introduction: "We identify and translate as Elizabeth's her polylingual devotions and prayers published in 1563 and 1569, and hope to stimulate debate about the authorship of these materials." This sentence is quite perverse. Clearly, the polylingual devotions and prayers associated with Elizabeth are not "hers," in the sense that their authorship is a given. Or rather, they become Elizabeth's primarily through the magic of the editors' critical language, by which reality itself gives way to their conviction. While, as I said before, one cannot have it both ways, too often this collection seeks to do just that.

  8. Many of the faults I describe here--including prose that attempts to bluster its way past such problems--also characterize Janel Mueller's The Native Tongue and the Word (1984). In a review of Mueller's book, textual scholar Anne Hudson wrote that "Value judgments are given with little explanation for them . . . many comments on style are worthless" and "because of its persistent inaccuracy of detail, it could hardly be recommended to students, whether undergraduate or graduate". The same might be said about large portions of this collection of Elizabeth's writings. It is a pity that sounder judgment did not prevail in the editing process.

  9. Perhaps to blame is this collection's persistent interest in promoting a fantasy Elizabeth not unlike the Hollywood one. This Elizabeth is an idealized heroine who, unlike the rest of us, never has a bad day speaking or writing, is master of all languages and genres, and, once more unlike the rest of us, is never mastered by them, who struggles valiantly and successfully against patriarchy even as she condescends to toy with subjects and rivals of both sexes, and whose eloquence, strength, and intelligence can always be recovered by a determined editor who knows what Elizabeth must have written. Obviously, this fantasy Elizabeth--a professorial erotic dream, as it were--will play well in the classroom. But giving in to fantasy time after time is not the best way to produce a scholarly edition.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).