Friday, 3 February 2012

Which is better: Elizabeth 1st or Charles Dickens?

Monday, 7 February is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens

In the UK, we have a jolly comedian - who, we are informed, the Queen likes - called Harry Hill.  His catch phrase is:

"I like X -  and I like Y - but which is better? There is only one way to find out - Fight!".

I feel the same about Charles Dickens and Queen Elizabeth 1st.  I like them both - but which is better? I am going to lock them in the same room and say "Fight!".

Both were very strong-minded personalities who engendered fear - and wonder - in those who met with them; both were eloquent writers interested in history; both are "glories" of these islands. However, only Dickens was able to comment on Elizabeth. She did not have the pleasure of commenting on him.

In his "Child's History of England" he did full justice to learned Lady Jane Grey who was just the type of passive, innocent young woman adored in his own novels. Then he moves onto the person and reign of Elizabeth 1st.

How he treats this Queen offers an insight into his methods as a writer - how he turns some people into extreme versions of themselves i.e. picks out their least appealing aspects and turns their whole character into a kind of cartoon (in terms of literature, "a caricature"). He does this because he has very instinctive likes and dislikes.

He starts off by getting personal with Elizabeth's appearance. First, he creates and then focuses on her "long, sharp nose" and "red" hair. Clearly Dickens did not fully appreciate redheads with a temper.

Then, he claims she was keen on "boxing the ears" of those around her - one can see shades of Lewis Carroll's "Queen" in Alice of Wonderland emerging. She did indeed hit out now and then at some courtiers - to keep a court of men in order. For example, no one could address her while standing up. They all had to kneel to speak to her.

Charles Dickens says he is "weary" of Elizabeth going on about being a Virgin - though he admits it is not a bad message in itself. He "cannot make out at this distance of time between opposite accounts, whether Elizabeth was really a humane woman, or desired to be so".

He then picks out two of her cruelties - but none of her kindnesses. They are her extreme treatment of Catherine Grey and that of a brave Puritan. This is for him enough evidence that she was not "humane" but he does not judge her in her time. She does not hold a candle to her sister, Mary who put to death:  Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Lady Jane Grey, the Earl of Northumberland (former Prime Minister), hundreds of ordinary men and women at the stake - and forty children.

He lampoons Elizabeth's difficulty in taking responsibility for the death of Mary Queen of Scots - who had been threatening her life, for years. 

He calls her a "deceitful character", "vain", "jealous" woman, who "had an extraordinary dislike to people being married". She "knew how to lead on her handsome favourite (Earl of Leicester) for her own vanity and pleasure and she knew how to stop him for her own pride: and his love and all other proposals came to nothing".

5/10 to Charles Dickens - for summing up her least attractive aspects, if uncharitably. However, his cartoon Queen Elizabeth omits so much: her ability as a leader, governor, administrator, defender of the faith and of her realm, her love of "the people", her nose for dangerous men, her sparkling court and her love of education.  She was also kind to Leicester and recompensed him - without giving into his ambition. She set up a Church in which people would not burn each other.

We know that William Shakespeare would drop everything to do what "The Moon" Elizabeth willed. She asked him to write "The Merry Wives of Windsor" because she wanted to see Falstaff "in love" .  He knew she was amused by his low and middle class pranks.

Would Dickens' stories, about murder, cruelty and the underclass be to her taste? They might have threatened her myth of "Merry England" and put a poor gloss on her happy, creative, "loving people". He might only have redeemed himself, through changing his plots and style - and through laughter.

So how have these two fared in their locked room? 

Methinks the Queen has the final upper hand - with an observation such as this:

"Mr Dickens, we note the foul scorn you have poured upon my reign and upon that of my father.  We note your feelings of pity upon my poor mother's death - and how you could not imagine a husband assassinating his wife. Indeed - it put me off all marriages, myself.  

However, I also note that as a writer and man, you pour scorn upon others, yet, totally without humour go about your own spiritual assassination of a loyal wife,  before God but without any sign of conscience.

Surely, Mr Dickens, this is pure humbug"....

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