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7 Mar 2004
The Queen's Conjuror - Benjamin Woolley - Flamingo 2002
* * *
Although the title sounds like a Big Commercial Fantasy, this is in fact a biography of Dr John Dee. In many ways, though, the subject matter isn't too different and might have benefitted from a more novelistic treatment.

The problem with biographies is that the biographer is limited by the source materials available, and this can lead to a less than satisfying portrait. This is very much the case here. The majority of the book covers a relatively short period of Dee's life and focuses on his relationship with the admittedly fascinating Edward Kelley, a medium of dubious reputation who was probably part schizophrenic and part fraud. Dee's early life is briefly sketched and only tantalising glimpses of the young man are offered (the giant scarab beetle that Dee, aged twenty, caused to fly about the stage during a performance of Lysistrata is mentioned, but Woolley refrains from speculating on how he caused it to happen - why not have a discussion of theatrical effects of the time?). Similarly we hear next to nothing of Dee's first two wives and his domestic arrangements before he moves to Mortlake. Presumably this is due to lack of source, which is fair enough. However it has led, I think, to inclusion of material which is of only peripheral relevance - for example there is a detailed description of Frobisher's ill-fated expedition to find the North-West Passage, to which Dee's only contribution was advice on navigation.

Things improve when Edward Kelley enters the picture and the pair travel to Bohemia and Prague. Woolley duly recounts the "actions" (seances), the various spirits whch manifested themselves and the writing of the "Enochian books". Unfortunately, he gives very few clues as to how twenty-first century readers should interpret these. From the quotations given, it looks extremely unlikely that the whole thing was a fraud perpetrated by Kelley - there must have been easier ways for him to make a living than dictating page after page of Enochian characters, especially after Laski, their rich patron, proved not to be so rich after all. Probably Kelley was a schizophrenic of some sort, and it is a shame that Woolley does not explore the sorts of psychosis he could have had.

I do entirely concur with Woolley's explanation for Dee's apparent trajectory from rigorous logic and mathematics to out-and-out mysticism. Although Dee is regarded as the archetypal renaissance scholar, he wasn't actually a great thinker. Today Dee is remembered chiefly for his library, his calculations (both astrological and navigational), and his scandalous relationship with Kelley (culminating in the infamous "cross-matching" or wife-swapping). He is not known for any original discoveries or startling insights. From his reading in his early years, Dee foresaw that the new knowledge of the renaissance would serve to displace religion as the central explanation for the universe just as the earth was displaced from the centre of the universe by Copernican ideas. Because he lacked the imagination to go with the new ideas, he instead spent the rest of his life trying to put the old order back, first by the application of mathematics and logic, which he thought would prove the existence of a rational mind behind creation, and when that failed, by relevations from "angels". Basically he was a conservative and had a second-rate mind (I know because I have a second-rate mind myself - when at college I was good at scholarly summaries but not so hot at coming up with ideas of my own).

I am led to wonder whether Woolley's refusal to provide at least some speculative explanations for the more puzzling aspects of Dee's life is the sign of a second-rate mind or merely that of a good biographer (I am not a great reader of biographies, so I can't really compare). I didn't feel I really understood John Dee and as a result, despite the lengthy list of sources and other scholarly paraphernalia, the book felt rather superficial. Perhaps Woolley should write a novel in which he can cut loose and really get inside the mind of his subject. Or perhaps Peter Ackroyd (in "the House of Dr Dee", which I haven't read) has already done so...

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