The Jubilee seems to be the only story in town this weekend; like the transit of Venus it is a once in a lifetime experience. My husband is a closet monarchist who happily celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. He was not alone – the television news said 80% of Americans support The Queen. Watching the news clips and seeing the event through his eyes started me thinking about how much the literature I am reading is influenced and defined by monarchy.
Right now I am reading Elizabethan, Restoration, Victorian, and Modern texts. These are all periods defined by monarchs or monarchy. I do not think it is as simple as a way to register or measure time. Right now I am wondering why more research has not been on the topic. It seems fascinating to me.
It is quite fascinating to consider how poets like Sydney and Raleigh paid what I assumed to be sycophantic homage to Elizabeth I. After watching my husband and others celebrate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee I have to reconsider that assumption. It now seems to be very sincere emotions to me. There are always questions about nationalism and authority in exams; monarchy, the relationship to monarchy and what it symbolizes seems to always be in the center of the conversation. Shakespeare wrote monarchs into his plays as characters; a rather audacious choice from some perspectives.
The term ‘Restoration’ is rather audacious also. It implicitly serves up an unfortunate allusion, alongside the need for Charles II to fulfill the promise of an internalized social contract. For me, the literature of the period negotiates the tension between the two extremes.
The social contract that Elizabeth I and Victoria forged in their times engraved their names upon their respective eras. They are powerful symbols that resonate in the period texts I am reading today. Imagine how riveting they must have been as symbols in their own ages. To find them characterized in literature requires the distance of time, and even now modern portrayals are prosaic. To me, they are most effectively represented and appreciated in the literature of their day as symbols or abstractions.
It must be an odd experience to allow oneself to become a symbol; but what a primal, visceral human need it fulfills. Which brings me to my Moderns unit, and the literature of my grandparents’ generation; they lived in continental Europe and watched the great dynastic powers cannibalize themselves in the royal sunset of the twentieth century. The fractured social contract is expressed in the angst and neurosis of ‘Mrs. Dallowy.’ Into the breach marched some remarkable women, all Queens of England: Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Queen Elizabeth II. I have never understood why so little feminist work is written about them. Why should Eleanor Roosevelt get all the feminist press? I have long been an admirer of these women, who are perhaps reluctant feminists, though potent symbols none the less. The Queen resonates particularly, as she is closest to my generation.
To me, The Queen has always been a strong feminist role model who exquisitely, impeccably, gets it done, as they say in America. If the twentieth century is the feminist century then these 3 queens of England, along with the other Queens Regnant of Europe who are the contemporaries of Elizabeth II, all deserve a star in the firmament if not a place in art and literature. It is back to the books tomorrow; if they are in the pages I will find them there.
While roaming the pages of these great texts and thinking over the once in a lifetime things we saw today, adding ‘Congratulations Ma’am, and Thank You,’ from myself, and unofficially, from 80% of America seems right. This weekend The Mayor of London graciously said the nicest thing Britain gave to the world is America. Do you think there is still time for us to join the Commonwealth?