26 APRIL 2003, Page 38

Cousins who never kissed

Lucy Hughes-Hallett


by Jane Dunn HatperCollins, £20, pp. 535 ISBN 0002571501 Elizabeth Tudor was 25 years old when she finally got her crown. Mary Stewart, at the same age, lost hers. The story of their relationship, as narrated by Jane Dunn, suggests that fortune's emblem should be not a wheel but a seesaw. Who goes up must bring another down.

The royal cousins were born eight years apart, which slightly skews the symmetry of their double story, but they were near enough in age, in status and in blood to be, inescapably, each other's nearest points of comparison. Their life stories are two of the best-known in British history, and Dunn's publishers are wildly inaccurate in claiming that this is the first time they have been told in tandem, but Dunn's version is freshly perceptive enough to point up new ironies and new pathos in their dual trajectories.

Mary was Queen of Scotland within a week of her birth and by the age of six she was living at the French court and betrothed to the Dauphin, set fair to be Queen of France as well. Monarchy was something which came to her without her having to worry her pretty head about it. As a result, Dunn plausibly argues, she neither properly valued its potency nor ever bothered to consider its responsibilities. Her chief occupation during her 16-month tenure of the French throne was 'examining the crown jewels'. Elizabeth's course to the throne was far longer and more frightening. By the time she got there she knew enough of the danger and the potential inherent in queenship to take it very seriously, so seriously that when her cousin was forced to abdicate (although Mary naturally bewailed her personal woes most loudly) it was Elizabeth — ideologically a monarchist as well as actually a monarch — who was the more deeply shocked.

This is how they are remembered: Mary seductive, irresponsible, feminine; Elizabeth clever, imperious, unsexed. Dunn amplifies and adds nuances to the familiar picture. She stresses the contrast between Elizabeth's self-denying celibacy and Mary's self-indulgent insistence on marrying the wrong man not once hut twice. But she also demonstrates that it is only in hindsight that the Virgin Queen looks so very different from her cousin. In 1560 the English ambassador to France wrote to William Cecil asking anxiously whether Elizabeth was 'foully forgetting' herself with Robert Dudley while praising the newly widowed 16-year-old Mary for her 'wisdom and Kingly modesty'. Back then it was Elizabeth who was seen to be the wanton and flighty one of the two young queens.

The ambassador's masculine adjective is significant. Dunn brings a feminist consciousness to her subject, but there's nothing anachronistic about that. Both queens, and all their thoughtful contemporaries, were preoccupied with the sexual politics of their shared position as regnant women. And it was not only Elizabeth who had 'the heart and stomach of a king'. Mary has been romanticised as the womanly one of the two, a charming duplicitous victim in black velvet, but Dunn notes that as a child of six she impressed her new French relations with her skill in hawking and as an adult she rode fast and hard. 'You are as brave as my bravest men-at-arms,' said her uncle. the Duc de Guise. In Scotland she led her troops into battle booted and spurred and breeched like a man. On the day of her downfall, when her men deserted her, it was a token of her defeat and subjection that she had to borrow a woman's dress to make her surrender, an ill-fitting one which revealed all too clearly her pregnant belly and, by extension, her female vulnerability.

She was Elizabeth's rival and a minatory example to her of how not to be queen. But though they were opposites they were also equivalents. Dunn argues persuasively that Elizabeth cared passionately about Mary's failure, not for sentimental reasons of family or of sisterhood (the two women, after all, never met) but because her own position as female monarch was so precarious that Mary's spectacular demonstration of a woman's unfitness to rule perilously undermined it.

Fortune's seesaw required that one had to die if the other was to survive in power, but Elizabeth herself couldn't shake her sense of identification with her eventual victim. Mary's abdication was a threat to her own sovereignty. 'I am not free, but a captive,' she wrote, when she had Mary a prisoner. When she was nerving herself to order Mary's execution she felt obliged to inform her Parliament that she would gladly give her own life if her death would benefit her kingdom. She lived through her cousin's unhappy story not with the compassion one might feel for another but with the horror with which one would contemplate such a fate for oneself.

Dunn's book could have done with one more read-through. There are many lengthy repetitions and sentences that wander way outside the bounds of proper syntax, or even of guessable sense. But her narrative is pacy enough to allow a reader to skim undeterred across these lapses and she writes in general with vigour and grace. This is an engaging and thoughtful new rendering of a story often told but worth retelling.