Sunday, April 10, 2011

A 19th Century Perspective on the Elizabethans

19. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

I've wanted to read Kenilworth for years, ever since I heard of its existence. The story of Leicester and Elizabeth by the author of Ivanhoe? I'm in.

Scott tells the story of the murder of Amy Dudley, Leicester's wife, whose death is still a mystery, though often imputed to her husband's ambition to be king. He converges Amy's story with Leicester's later secret marriage to Lettice Knollys, creating a plot that differs from history, but has its roots and intentions in a greater mythical rendering of an Elizabethan legend. In Scott's fiction, it is 1575, and an impetuous Leicester, ambitious favorite of the queen, marries an equally impetuous, obscure minor noblewoman, Amy Dudley. He elopes with her, but instructs her to keep the marriage secret and essentially keeps her under lock and key at a secluded manor, Cumnor Place, in Berkshire County. Her guardians are Anthony Forster, who was a man suspected of colluding in the death of the real Amy Dudley, and Varney, a man of ambition and no scruples, who serves as Leicester's master of the horse. Her only companion is Forster's daughter Janet. Meanwhile, her betrothed, a minor lord named Tressilian, comes looking for her, as he and her father both believe that Varney has seduced her and made her his mistress. It's a tale of trickery and deception, a historical romance, a tragedy, and culminates in the festivities at Kenilworth, where Leicester has prepared a celebration of several days in honor of his Queen, the formidable Elizabeth, who appears here as vain and power-hungry, a demanding and exacting mistress whom Leicester's failure to please will have disastrous consequences.

I'm not going to lie, this is a long slog and much of the prose can seem unnecessary, but Scott is creating a mythical history. The dialogue and descriptions are reminiscent of a play, but the narrator frequently interjects to remind us that all these events happened long ago and the historical sites are now in ruins or in repair, remnants of a long-ago society, which Scott feels should be celebrated, along with the social and intellectual progress that has since been made. There is a distinct rejection of Elizabethan ideas about astrology, alchemy, and fate, Scott seems to suggest that these beliefs are what made the Elizabethans behave so foolishly. He also shows the Elizabethans looking back to earlier ages, particularly Arthurian legend, and in some ways makes the Elizabethan mythos an extension of that, by introducing the character of Wayland Smith, whose origins are in Germanic pagan beliefs, but who was also said to have been the smith who created Excalibur. Scott's Wayland is situated in the Elizabethan era, very much a flesh-and-blood human being, but we see how he creates the myth of the demon smith who shods horses unseen for payment placed on a rock.

Overall, Kenilworth is well worth reading and enjoyable for narrative pleasure as well as historical perspective and literary analysis.

1 comment:

Marie said...

Sounds like a very interesting book for historical fiction fans- I'm certainly intrigued :-)