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Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928)

by Lytton Strachey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Many of the earliest books, particularly those dating back to the 1900s and before, are now extremely scarce and increasingly expensive. We are republishing these classic works in affordable, high quality, modern editions, using the original text and artwork.



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Though in some ways deeply silly, this was a very enjoyable read. Strachey's way with words can be hilarious. ( )
  keyboardcouch | Mar 28, 2013 |
It would be amusing to put Lytton Strachey and Sir Francis Bacon in a box - like, say, a camel spider and a scorpion - to watch how they would fight. Lytton’s lashing stinger vs. Francis’s stridulating chelicerae. Ouch. Rattle. Ouch.

in Elizabeth and Essex, Strachey holds Bacon in low regard. Essex was a early patron of Bacon, and his loyal, if ineffectual, advocate in matters requiring Elizabeth’s beneficence. That loyalty was ultimately ill paid; Bacon chose to participate in the final prosecution of Essex. The Earl’s blunderous attempt at a coup d’etat predictably backfired. But better for Bacon, sub specie aeternitatis, to have abstained from the star chamber rather than take part in Essex’s fore-ordained destruction. Injecting his venom, Strachey labels Bacon’s reversed loyalty “serpentine”, thereby alluding to Bacon’s essay “On Truth, and turning back on the author his own words regarding civil falsehood “For these winding, and crooked courses, are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet.”

Bacon, were he allowed to rebut, would likely grind up in his pincers the psychological approach of Strachey to biography, in particular Strachey’s debt to Freud and Dostoyevsky.

Strachey observed that Elizabeth’s ultimate beheading of her suitor, Essex, could have been, on one level, a long postponed revenge - of the child/female over the parent/male - for Henry VIII’s beheading of her mother, Anne Boleyn. One can imagine Bacon’s sneer: “Really Sigmund?”

And one doesn’t have to squint very hard to see the Dostoyevsky in Strachey’s portraits of Elizabeth, Essex, and Cecil. Viz, the crafty vacillations of Karamazov pere (Elizabeth), the compulsive, ensnaring, humiliating passions of Dimitri (Essex), and the smooth patient frigid calculations of Ivan (Cecil).

Bacon would deflate Strachey's style easily, for Bacon has said - “Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men's minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?”

For my vote, I prefer Strachey’s approach to “truth” over Bacon’s - the “diamond by dainty candlelight”, over the “pearl in daylight.” Please, dear psychobiographer, leave in those imaginations, opinions, and flattered hopes!

In fact, by candlelight, other useful truths and correspondences emerge. Case in point, I came to pick up Elizabeth and Essex last week because I was stimulated by the film Anonymous. That film dramatizes the theory that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. De Vere chose anonymity over fame, so it goes, to avoid piquing retribution by Elizabeth or her advisors. That he would do so, seems far-fetched until you see the treacherous cross currents made vivid in Elizabeth and Essex,

The chapter regarding the Queen’s physician, Ruy Lopez, shows what could befall even an innocent bystander when ambition and paranoia were inflamed by intrigue. Lopez, a Portugese Jew, by a complicated series of events, became falsely implicated, in a Spanish plot that was in turn, falsed amplified and ultimately alleged to have as its objective the poisoning of the Queen. In return for Lopez’s many years of medical service, he was interrogated by both Cecil and Essex (who were usually rivals), tortured, convicted, and put to death in the following manner - he was castrated, then dis-embowled, and then quartered. (once again, ouch)

In between reading chapters from Essex and Elizabeth, I happened to chance on the BBC series Luther. The series concerns an anti-hero detective in modern London. It’s beautifully written, brilliantly photographed, and seemingly so distant from subject matter of Elizabeth and Essex. And yet, perhaps because of Strachey’s skill in evoking that volatile and criminal time, the 21st century criminal justice workplace, in Luther, seemed an echo to me of the intrigues, the impulsiveness, the moral quirkiness, and the vicious retributive justice of that earlier time - as though some perverse local goddess still haunts the shores of the Thames, and lingers in its miasmas. ( )
15 vote Ganeshaka | May 27, 2012 |

A short (180 pages) but colourful account of the relationship in the 1590s between Elizabeth I and the second Earl of Essex, which ended with his execution in 1601. No footnotes or much sourcing at all, which makes one a bit suspicious of its historical accuracy, though it is told in suitably dramatic terms. I knew the basics already, but Strachey catches our attention by portraying a court struggle between Cecil (the younger son of Lord Burghley, who founded the Salisbury dynasty) and Essex's supporters, with Francis Bacon playing a key role ny switching sides and ensuring Essex's doom; the queen then dies of a broken heart. I had not realised that Essex was actually the great-grandson of the "other Boleyn girl", Anne's sister Mary - indeed his grandmother was quite possibly her daughter by Henry VIII, making him the queen's great-nephew. It also hadn't occurred to me that he was much the most prominent courtier ever to be made Lord Deputy or Lord Lieutenant of Ireland - I had vaguely assumed that his father had held the post at some point before his horrible death, but I was wrong. The involvement of William Shakespeare in the whole thing is interesting but incidental (and anyway covered better by Shapiro). ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 2, 2010 |
This was shorter and an easy read. It doesn't go into specific details incessantly about the time period but it is a good overview of the downfall of Robert Deveraux. I do recommend it to anyone interested in Elizabeth's character in her later years. ( )
  marieburton2004 | Mar 17, 2009 |
Psychobiography made its appearance with Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex (1928). His retelling of the failure of the Essex/Elizabeth relationship is based on Strachey's notion of Elizabeth's traumatized childhood leading to "a compromised heterosexuality" (221). Strachey and Virginia Woolf, who discussed the book with him but in the end disliked it, both viewed Elizabethan England as a time of vitality and "young imagination," in contrast to stodgy Victorian modernism. Woolf went on to construct her own Elizabeth in Orlando (1928), a figure whom Dobson and Watson call "generative" rather than destructive, as she enables the progress of the young Orlando through future ages.
1 vote antimuzak | Sep 7, 2006 |
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Strachey, Lyttonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brakell Buys, R. vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The English Reformation was not merely a religious event; it was also a social one.
Human relationships must either move or perish. When two consciousnesses come to a certain nearness the impetus of their interactions, growing ever intenser and intenser, leads on to an inescapable climax. The crescendo must rise to its topmost note; and only then is the preordained solution of the theme made manifest.
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Many of the earliest books, particularly those dating back to the 1900s and before, are now extremely scarce and increasingly expensive. We are republishing these classic works in affordable, high quality, modern editions, using the original text and artwork.

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