Jane Dunn's double biography Elizabeth and Mary takes as its rich and explosive subject matter the ultimately fatal relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Throughout much of the second half of the 16th century, these two women found themselves queens of their kingdoms and locked in a battle for possession of the British Isles, which only ended with Mary's eventual downfall and execution at Elizabeth's hands in 1586.
As Dunn points out in her meticulous and compelling recreation of the complex relationship between the two women, "from that one act of regicide, a queen killing a fellow queen, has spun a mythology of justification, romance, accusation, and blame that retains its force right to the present day." Her approach attempts to avoid myth and romance and understand the complex bond that existed between the two women. Elizabeth, the apparent victor, "was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy", while Mary was pursued by claims of sexual excess and immersion in murderous plots against husbands and enemies, variously seen as "a wronged Madonna or a murderous jezebel."
Dunn elegantly follows the ups and downs of both monarchs as they strive for political power. Mary's tumultuous reign as Queen of Scotland is particularly well handled, as is Elizabeth's agonised vacillation over her decision to execute Mary. In the end, death triumphed over both, and ensured that each was "elevated to an idealised majesty" for very different reasons. Dunn has marshalled an impressive body of evidence that never overwhelms this psychologically nuanced account of these two remarkable women. --Jerry Brotton