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ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England. By Louis B. Wright. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $5.00. The Great Tudors. Edited by Katharine Garvin. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.75. Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. By Stefan Zweig. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: The Viking Press. $3.50. William Cecil, the Power behind Elisabeth. By Alan Gordon Smith. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.75.

Can the Elizabethans be seen better as individuals or en masse? Stefan Zweig, in “Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles,” and Alan Gordon Smith, in “William Cecil,” dwell on single figures, each certainly noteworthy in the time. Katharine Garvin offers a gallery of portraits, forty “Great Tudors” treated by as many authors of repute, with an extra collaborator in the case of Shakespeare, each writer allowed by the editor to dance “as it seemed to him fit” on the few pages allotted in a single volume. In “Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England,” Louis B. Wright prefers rather to examine selected aspects in the life of a class. He would have helped his readers by identifying more exactly the class he had in mind and by specifying more accurately the categories of facts for which he searched. But he disarms critics with the explanation that he “attempted little more than a survey of the materials that reflect the mind of the middle class.”

Encouraged by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Huntington Library, Mr. Wright has added to the fruits of wide reading in the works of later scholars, hundreds of items gleaned by industrious search in the dark places of such collections as the British Museum and the Bodleian, to mention only two of the places where he worked. His ample index includes titles of many books and pamphlets published in the time of which he writes; he makes appropriate references to them in his notes, and the pages of his text abound in quotations testifying to both the quality and quantity of the matter that he found. These excerpts with the author’s comments are arranged in fifteen topical chapters, with such titles as the “Citizen’s Pride,” “Concern over Learning,” “Handbooks to Improvement,” “Guides to Godliness,” “The Utility of History,” “The Wonders of Travel,” “The Strange World of Science,” “The Stage and Drama.”

The projection into earlier generations of the ideology of recent social controversy tends to be misleading. Mr. Wright may know precisely what he means by the term “bourgeois” as applied to English society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; his readers have no way of finding out. A foreign word at best, it was certainly not current, if it was even known, in any England properly described as Elizabethan. Its habitual use to describe indiscriminately groups of “tradesmen,” “merchants,” “shopkeepers,” “citizens,” or “burghers” arouses suspicion concerning the composition of the “middle class” to which the title of the book refers. The English population in the sixteenth century was largely rural; was the middle class of that time wholly an urban phenomenon? A majority of the items cited by Mr. Wright were published in and pertain in large part to London; did the citizens of that modest though growing and important metropolis constitute a large part of the middle class?

Without even a summary analysis and description of the structure of sixteenth century society, the reader is frequently uncertain concerning the character of the audiences to which Mr. Wright’s authors addressed themselves or the incentives that inspired them to publish. It does not suffice to say that “a great class of merchants, tradesfolk, and skilled craftsmen . . . whose thoughts and interests centered in business profits . . . made up the middle class, the bourgeoisie, the average men.” Might not social gulfs in their time have separated some of these groups that Mr. Wright so easily reduces to a common average? If this is true, it may not be useful to conclude that the “ideology” of the “popular culture of modern America was implicit in the middle-class thought of Elizabethan England,” not to mention the final imperative in the book: “The historian of American culture must look back to the Renaissance and read widely in the forgotten literature of tradesmen.”

Perhaps it is the “conventional practice” to describe as Elizabethan the century following the accession of the Queen, and doubtless there was a “consistent and progressive development in the commercial groups” along with “great intellectual, social, and political changes” in that period. Nevertheless, Mr. Wright may not have made the best use of his material in arranging it in topical chapters with slight regard for chronological sequence. A hundred years is a long time in the history of a modern people. It would include the administrations of the Presidents of the United States from Washington to Cleveland. Would a reader make much of a volume of extracts from ephemeral American publications in that time arranged in a dozen or more topical categories? Whatever the class of society or the aspect of its life with which an historian essays to deal, it would seem to be fundamental in his undertaking to place in time the matters he observes, enabling a reader to relate for himself things that were contemporary even where the author perceives no other connection.

Herr Zweig is more considerate of his readers, which may in part explain the wider circulation of his book. His Mary had an infancy, a girlhood, a dramatic climax to her life in her early twenties, an overwhelming passion for which she sacrificed ambition, and a culminating tragedy in which she was the “quintessential heroine.” He seeks inspiration from Shakespeare and modern psychologists, contriving to make his heroine live in his book, whether she ever dwelt in Scotland or not. Another biographer canvassed the facts several years ago and concluded that she subordinated passion to her ambitions for herself and her son. A third in Miss Garvin’s volume (Marjorie Bowen) dismisses her career as “a mere episode in the story of Scotland that did not affect the development of that nation one way or another.” The “known motives of all concerned in her downfall” were “too brutal and sordid for her tragedy to have real dignity or pathos.”

Mr. Smith offers likewise a work of the imagination buttressed by selected facts. Assuming the Roman Catholics to have had the better cause and Mary of Scotland to have been the legitimate Queen of England, he has to explain how the national Church took root and Elizabeth kept the crown. Unwilling to accord many good qualities to that Queen, he magnifies the astuteness and good fortune, if not the moral sensibilities, of her minister. He undertakes to rescue the “first and greatest Cecil” from an obscurity which was the result of “almost a deliberate conspiracy to dwarf him” into a “faithful flunkey.” Mr. Hilaire Belloc in Miss Garvin’s volume begins with substantially the same premises and reaches similar conclusions in fewer pages. Cecil rivaled Bismarck and Richelieu in “power of intrigue, of tenacity,” and stands “up above all other forces which made modern England as does an isolated mountain out of a plain.” This is clear when we “contrast the conditions which he found with those which he left, remembering all the while that the newer conditions were foreseen by him, designed by him, often written down in so many words before they were realized.” Professor G. B. Harrison in the same volume makes much less extensive claims for Elizabeth.

Miss Garvin offers the series of essays in her volume as history of a sort. She describes the time in which her figures flourished as a “dramatic age.” Thus Spenser, although allotted a chapter in the book, seems “ill-fitting” and out of place. History is to her more than Foxe’s “Glasse of Times,” and she feels that its study “should lead to self-knowledge, self-discipline, and ultimately to a higher philosophy.” One of her aims is to suggest the idea “that an age is in part made up of a multitude of separate characters . . . not a fixed and unified circle.” Perhaps neither she and her two score authors nor Mr. Wright offer sufficient basis for imagining life as it was lived by Elizabethans.

Whatever the function of history, it cannot avoid the preliminary hurdle of enlisting the reader’s interest. Herr Zweig introduces us intimately to a passionate woman who lived her life plausibly to a tragic end. Miss Garvin and her authors make us casually acquainted with a company of interesting individuals who were important figures in their time. Mr. Wright invites us to try with him to make something of a larger number of the obscure and less known. Choosing the more difficult task, he needed a greater clarity of thought and literary skill. Without familiar personalities to liven it, his narrative also wants direction and movement. But as a report of findings that were the fruits of active search it has a substance the other volumes lack.


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