Don’t be put off by the title: “Virgin and the Crab” refers in no way to some type of venereal disease. It in fact tells the story of two remarkable Renaissance figures; the young Elizabeth Tudor and John Dee, a brilliant mathematician and astrologer (among other things) who serves her. The title refers to the astrological signs of Dee and Elizabeth, and the sly wit of the title infuses the rest of the book.
The book traces the treacherous years leading up to the accession of Elizabeth, particularly the reign of Mary I. A well-known story to Tudor enthusiasts, but Parry makes it fresh with engaging, witty prose and wonderful characterization. The joy of the book is in the detail in which less well-known Tudor characters are portrayed. The stars of the tale are a group of academics and reformers who share an idealistic dream of England’s future under Elizabeth. They include several non-household names such as Elizabeth’s tutor, Roger Achasm, humanist John Cheke, the more well-known William Cecil (who usually is portrayed as some sort of dour bureaucrat, but here is brought to vivid life), and even Robert Dudley. Elizabeth also makes several appearances, but the book really belongs to Dee. He is shown here as a figure of marvelous complexity; a spy, a teacher, a mystic. It is a wonderful characterization on which the whole book rests.
The book is written in present tense, giving the setting an appropriately mystical feel. The language is hypnotic at times, and sharply witty at others. Instances of humor abound, such as the Spanish ambassador’s botched attempt at an English saying, or Cecil’s indignant response to Dee’s insinuation that he can’t fight; his grandfather fought at Bosworth Field! Dee’s response is priceless: “Wonderful. Do you think he could be persuaded to come with us?”
Unfortunately, the delightful detail of the book is a double-edged sword; an average Joe is probably not acquainted with the minor characters and nuances of the age which “Virgin and the Crab” is concerned with. A character chart at the beginning of the book is handy, but I got the feeling that had I not been as deeply fascinated with Tudor history as I am, I might have had trouble following along. That being said, not every book can or should have mass commercial appeal; “Virgin and the Crab” is an absolute feast for Tudorphiles, and in that respect it is a major success.