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King's Queens

June 23, 1991

Florence King and her jaundiced eye made for an entertaining view through a distant mirror. I've been a Flossie fan since I was a poor-but-bright kid stealing my mom's Playgirl just for the King column.

As usual, upon seeing a new piece by Ms. King, I start the hunt for her favorite allusion, Scylla and Charybdis. Second, I anticipate her born 'n' bred Southern contradiction and her radical-spinster masculinism to surface; the question is only the form they will take. And there they all were, in the review.

Ms. King's treatment of "To the Scaffold" showed a touching amount of charity toward its pitiable subject, Marie Antoinette. How much more jarring was the contrast in her single-minded screed on Elizabeth's success in playing with the big boys like a Games-Your-Mother-Never-Taught-You alumna. The inference is that Elizabeth was a legendary monarch and Marie Antoinette a contemptable failure in direct proportion to how unfemale they both were.

I'm confused. How much of this theory is the biographer's, and how much the reviewer's?

I'm also confused by some relevant historical facts. Ms. King claims that Elizabeth "knew that men . . . secretly despise feminine traits," and so drew the logical conclusion that men must be better. Perhaps that choice was formed in part because King Henry VIII, her father, publicly denied and discredited his daughters, while favoring the wimpy Edward, who had done nothing but be born male.

Maybe Elizabeth anointed herself the Virgin Queen not because the "masses" are "threatened by female sexuality" but because of the childhood memory of first her mother and later her first cousin, both executed for infidelity at her father's command. But hey, I never went to college.

However, A. G. Rattray Taylor agrees with me. In "Sex in History," one reads that during the reign of Queen Bess, so-called women's issues were in the ascendancy, and feminine values were in full flower. There was "an awakening conscience of responsibility toward others . . . expressed into the poor laws . . . a new love of free learning . . . and a flood of creative energy." No gender-shamed conservative could have presided over changes like these.

Margaret Thatcher's Empire produced soccer riots and punk culture, not Shakespeare and high-seas piracy. Elizabeth may have liked and understood men, but she never stopped being a woman.

Or, as my angel grandma used to say, "Think like a woman and act like a man and you'll be thought of as a Queen. Or even a King."


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