False history depends on neat antitheses, Reformation history more than most. England's move from Catholic Christendom to a more nationalistic Protestantism was consolidated in Elizabeth I's reign, and there has been a tradition - begun in Elizabeth's lifetime - of seeing her as the iconographical representation of this. It has also been the opinion of some historians that in courtly flattery and popular devotion she supplanted that other strong woman, the Virgin Mary; and thus, that many in a state officially opposed to religious images became unconscious idolaters of the royal icon. Quoting the notorious couplet from one of the elegies written at Elizabeth's death, "She was, She is (what can there more be said?) / In earth the first, in heaven the second Maid", Frances Yates commented: "What more can be said indeed? Except that implications of this kind are not uncommon in Elizabethan literature."
Some subsequent scholars have placed more weight on the conflation of the two virgins than Yates ever intended. Undoubtedly it sometimes happened, but there is a danger of reading a part as representative of the whole. Helen Hackett's book is first a warning against synecdoche, and second an argument for placing texts in their chronological context. The book is divided into chapters covering broad phases of Elizabeth I's life: the years before her succession and immediately after it; 1560-78, when marriage presented itself as an urgent possibility; 1578-82, a period when images of perpetual virginity accumulated; and the closing decades of the queen's reign, where something resembling a cult of Elizabeth - though offset by a variety of scepticisms - does indeed seem to have come into existence. Her death represented the apotheosis of many myths, and gave rise to an instant nostalgia.
Many of the texts Hackett discusses are familiar: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, "Times eldest sonne, old age", with its concluding "Vivat Eliza for an Ave Marie", and Sir Walter Raleigh's "Walsingham". For these her database approach is especially useful, contextualising them with rarer items written at the same time. But the book is not just a survey; its arguments arise naturally out of arrangement. Hackett writes well and seriously. The picture that emerges is that of response rather than impetus: Elizabeth as the poetry-writing elite saw her, rather than an attempt to read the mind of Elizabeth and to guess how she arrived at her sublime manipulations of image.
Historians may find this disconcerting; they ought also to find refreshing its revelation of hopes and fears which the monarch engendered, but could not always control. The late 1570s and early 1580s, when the only serious threat to Elizabeth's maidenhood came from the unpopular Duke of Anjou, rendered the idea of perpetual virginity and a doubtful succession more generally attractive than a foreign king; and the period saw a constellation of images designed to extol her as parthenogenic mother of the English nation, first trying hard to keep open the possibility of genuine motherhood with a more appropriate husband, then accepting and applauding the inevitable.
An entertainment performed at Norwich in 1578 hedges its bets by comparing Elizabeth to both Venus and Diana; Spenser portrays her as Venus Virgo in The Shepheards Calendar of 1579, both virgin and fertile; but Thomas Blennerhasset in 1582 chose another virgin goddess for his Revelation of the true Minerva, incorporating the image of the phoenix as an acknowledgement that Elizabeth's self-perpetuation might be spiritual rather than physical.
Perhaps a greater danger of misconstruction lies in the reason why Frances Yates's observation gained such a wide debased currency in the first place: generalisations are easy to remember. Nuanced history and criticism often demand from the reader a close professional familiarity with the material, secondary as well as primary; particularly since accounts stressing the need for an appreciation of complexity usually see themselves as corrective. It would be a pity, though, if this book were to be written off as too academic for its own good. Complexity, and the diverse means of perceiving a female figure in authority, are both part of Hackett's feminist thesis. Any reader of Roy Strong must recognise the justness of this; the Virgin Queen is not so much an overdetermined symbol as positively encrusted. The methodology of this book owes something to the popular cultural historians who re-evaluate the great women of history by tracing their personas through time: Susan Haskins on Mary Magdalen, Lucy Hughes-Hallett on Cleopatra, with Marina Warner as star of the sea. Hackett's originality is to apply this to a relatively short time-span, and see what it tells us.
Alison Shell is curator of rare books, Royal Institute of British Architects.
Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen:: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary
Author - Helen Hackett
ISBN - 0 333 56664 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £35.00
Pages - 304pp