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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn

Posted By Claire on April 1, 2011

Elizabeth and Mary by Jane Dunn

US version

Today’s book review is by our regular book reviewer, Niki Incorvia, M.A. Thanks, Niki!

Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn

My interest in Mary Queen of Scots began to peak when I started reading about the dynamics of Elizabeth’s reign. With both queens close in age and ruling in neighboring countries, it is difficult not to notice the parallels and contrasts between both their lives. The author, Jane Dunn, does an excellent job of giving a detailed biography starting from their births to the death of Mary and the inclusion of her son, King James, in the English succession. Mary was a queen who chose to fulfill her lustful female desires over the tranquility of Scotland. Elizabeth, however, who remained unmarried, pledged her loyalty to the people of England. It’s a lesson in history to see their lives play out and which life choices better served each queen.

The circumstances in which Elizabeth and Mary entered the world could not be more marked. Dunn gives a particularized account of Mary becoming Queen of Scotland at just a couple of days old after the death of her father, King James V. She compared this to Elizabeth’s turbulent and less pampered life leading up to her reign as the last Tudor monarch. Dunn does an incredible job of depicting the character of both queens in a familiar and sympathetic manner. The amount of detail and research put into this book is quite extraordinary. I would hardly consider this book a “light” read, but if anyone ever wanted to know the intricate circumstances of both these women’s lives and how these intertwined, I would suggest this as a thorough and entertaining source of historical reference. I notice when Dunn makes an observation or introduces a fact regarding one queen, she soon counteracts it with a comparison as to what her rival was doing at the same point in her life, as you can see below:

Her [Mary] cousin Elizabeth’s youth was largely spent outside court life with her books and plans, and the occasional visitor to engage her thoughts, Mary’s life from the age of six was lived at the very centre of the most glamorous court in Christendom.

At times Dunn seemed to “jump around.” One moment she is discussing Mary’s reign as the queen of Scotland, then she compares it to Elizabeth’s monarchy, then goes back and references Elizabeth’s childhood. It may have been part of the complexity of the book, but I have to admit at points it took me a second to get mentally caught up.

Having limited knowledge of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s personalities, I thought Dunn did a great job of conveying both women in an interesting manner where their characters seem to fit their life actions and the complicated elements of their dissimilar reigns as queen regents. I certainly learned a lot about their tempers, loves, dislikes and respective past-times and hobbies. In addition, I was surprised to find out how long Mary Queen of Scots was actually imprisoned by Elizabeth and what personal strife and anguish it caused the English queen to have Mary as a threat in such close proximity to herself and the Catholics in England. Also, after Mary’s execution, Elizabeth’s grief over her decisions and her rising insecurities from her childhood mark a real connection with her mother, Anne Boleyn, another queen who posed a threat and was executed by a sovereign.

UK version

UK version

What I found additionally interesting was Mary’s destiny to be prosecuted for her faith rather than her treasonous plots against her cousin, Elizabeth. It baffles my mind to think that Mary thought herself in the position to make such grand plans for her eternal destiny as a Catholic martyr, seen in this excerpt, “She [Mary] stage-managed her exit for maximum impact on history and the watchers of the world.” And again, “Mary’s stance was uncompromising; she wanted martyr not traitor to be the judgment of history.” Also, Mary wore the color red to her execution, the color of martyrdom.

I found this book more difficult to read than other Tudor era books. I am not sure what attributed to that, but it is a compelling story and well-written piece of historical fact on Dunn’s part. My only reservation is perhaps the way the book ended. I would have liked it to continue on to Elizabeth’s death and the start of King James I of England’s reign. Considering that this was my first book on Elizabeth, it would have been nice to see her life told in full.

The book was eloquently written and full of remarkable detail on two women monarchs choosing very different paths in life, one disgraced and eventually beheaded and one earning nicknames such as “Gloriana” and “The Faerie Queen.” Dunn magnificently gives an inside look into the pathos of insecurity and fear present even in monarchs such as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England.


Paperback: 480 pages (592 pages UK version)
Publisher: Vintage January 25, 2005 (Harper Perennial; New Ed edition 1 Mar 2004 in UK)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375708200 (000653192X in the UK)
ISBN-13: 978-0375708206 (978-0006531920 in the UK)

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16 Responses to “Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn”

  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    I have read this book and enjoyed it. What I remember is the stark contrast between these queens and Dunn’s suggestion that it was, in fact, Elizabeth’s difficult childhood that rendered her the better queen. Mary was pampered and spoiled and expected that treatment to continue into adulthood. Which proves one of my pet theories–adversity in childhood, while not desirable, can help form excellent character.

  2. Molster says:

    I would heartily dispute that Mary “chose to fulfill her lustful female desires over the tranquility of Scotland.” After the death of Francis, her child-husband, 4 years her junior, the marriage to Darnley was for love, but also out of her seemingly obsessive feeling that she should be married, doubtless to procure an heir, which she did with Darnley, although the heat of love soon faded. After Darnley’s murder, the disastrous marriage to Bothwell was not of her choosing – she felt obliged after he had raped her and practically blackmailed her to marry him. She was perhaps capricious, a reluctant queen, and certainly did not always consider the good of Scotland in her short personal reign of a mere 6 years, but she was never a ‘lustful’ person and there was no indication that she indulged in any form of physical relationship after the age of 25!

  3. Niki says:

    Molster, Yes some accounts pr versions of Mary’s life and marriages are depicted that way. However, Dunn did not once mention “rape” or “blackmail” in this particular book. I based this review and my opinions on Dunn’s account of Mary’s life and reign.

  4. Niki says:

    In fact, Dunn even suggested she committed adultery with her jailer while she was imprisoned in England.

  5. Lisaannejane says:

    “Lustful female desires”? Come on, give me a break! That really is going too far. I find it hard to look at the rest of your review with a straight face,

  6. Niki says:

    okay you are entitled to your opinion, but have you read this book? once again, this is a review of the book and its contents, I did not write a biography of Mary Queen of Scots above.

  7. Claire says:

    I think we need to remember that these are not Niki’s views of Mary, so it is pointless attacking Niki, they are the author’s depiction of Mary.

  8. Neil Kemp says:

    I must agree that this book is ceartainly not a “light read” (at over 500 pages), but for anyone seeking insight and historical reference regarding Mary and Elizabeth, it is invaluable. Jane’s view of Mary may be somewhat controversial in some areas, but is, in the main, sympathetic and, all in all, a worthwhile and entertaining read.

  9. Niki says:

    Yes, after publishing this review I have now come to the conclusion that Dunn may have been more partial to Elizabeth’s plight. I’m not sure if that is just me, but I do however 100% agree on Dunn’s depiction of Mary being a bit controversial. Thanks so much for your feedback. I love hearing from other people who have read the same book I reviewed.

  10. Laura Andrews says:

    I’m sure that Elizabeth had many “lustful female desires” too. She just didn’t commit herself to any of them. Good for her !

  11. Karen says:

    I have been wondering if this book is a good read! Love everyones feedback!! I have been reading Mary Queen of Scots..a biography by John guy….i would highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested!!

  12. Sharon Hutchinson says:

    This is actually one of the best books I have read regarding these two fascinating women. However, it is not for the novice. I think that one should have a good knowledge of the lives and reigns of Elizabeth and Mary before tackling this scholarly work. Otherwise it could prove confusing as it is not actually biographical in nature.

    It has been a while since I’ve read this but I believe that the author advances the theory that Mary may have had a quite severe bi-polar disorder. After considering her many often puzzling actions, it is quite plausible indeed. Mary exhibited bursts of tremendous energy while at other times she would stay in a darkened room, often weeping copiously.

    All in all, it is an excellent comparative study. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly.

  13. Chris says:

    I would reccomend to anyone that is interestested in Mary Queen of Scotts, Antonia Frasiers “Mary Queen of Scotts” It and is a straightforward,very readable biography. It leads you in to Mary’s mind set. She was spoiled,raised in the French court,revered as a dauphiness,a queen. Then, to bleak Scotland. Cold and damp palaces. The people she was to rule,basically barbarians. Preachers, like John Knox,harranging her .
    I would agree,she was foolish,like Marie Antoinette. But I do not feel she was stupid,just misguided. After all, her advsiors were all men.

  14. Claire says:

    John Guy’s “My Heart is My Own” a bio of Mary Queen of Scots is also an excellent read.

  15. Melissa says:

    I liked this book, even though it was hard to follow sometimes. After reading the review, which I really enjoyed, I now want to go read it again. I was tickled to see that the version of the book I have is actually the UK version, even though I bought it at a store here in the US. Is there really a big difference between the two versions? I’m curious to know…..Thank you for the book review!

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