Art History in “The Life of Elizabeth I” by Alison Weir

A detailed biography on the English queen, author Alison Weir looks into Elizabeth R’s life and investigates the true and false claims that arose during and after the famed woman’s reign.  Having simultaneously read this book and The Marriage Game, Weir’s historical fiction novel of the Queen at the same time, I regard this review as a companion piece to my review of Game.

 As with The Marriage Game (and something I already analysed in my review of that book), Weir demonstrates in this biography that portraits have their own form of currency (distribution for marriage prospects or worn as jewelry, as found in Game) in the Elizabethan era.  Only in this nonfiction book, royals also withheld these artworks as ransom material.  Furthermore, she devotes pages to how Queen Elizabeth controlled her artistic public image until her death.  In fact, Weir reveals that artistic works depicting the Queen as an old woman did not occur until after Elizabeth’s passing.  In my review, I looked at how the characters in The Marriage Game expressed anxieties at painters’ depictions of them and how the queen looked in portraits.  Furthermore, Weir herself uses portraits as an aid for her descriptions of these people who once lived hundreds of years ago, their renderings acting as evidence.

Regarding other art history references, Weir dedicates one chapter to the English artistic culture that flowered under Queen Elizabeth.  This book also includes the cathedrals, castles, and manors also figure heavily when Weir wrote of the progresses Elizabeth and her people took part in.

When it comes to writing, Weir took a somewhat dry approach. Probably a good idea given her incredible dedication to hard facts.  For Weir, any claim that she can’t find solid evidence for, stays firmly under salacious speculation. However, she does use the occasional colloquialism and will not shy away showing her distaste at something.

As a bonus, she has a section at the end of the book to which movies and television series that she recommends as accurate retellings of Queen Elizabeth’s life and critiques the ones that do not stay true to the facts.  Amusingly, she used art history to show that the filmmakers for one film did not do good job depiction the Elizabethan era.

As a guide to Queen Elizabeth, I recommend this book.

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