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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn. Knopf. 453 pages. $30.

Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots ruled on a single island and, because of their competing claims on the throne of England, could never quite take their eyes off each other (though they were never destined to meet). So much might have drawn these extraordinary women together.

Both were essentially raised as orphans. Both ruled in a male-dominant culture. And, for both, the public and private were inseparable -- their every choice and particularly their personal relationships were fraught with meaning for the world's balance of power and, not incidentally, for their own survival in courts brimming with intrigue and ambition. Yet, these two queens could not have been more different in character, outlook or self-regard. Elizabeth was the self-sacrificing Virgin Queen who subordinated her desires in order to rule. Mary was tempestuous, impulsive and possessed of an intoxicating charm.

Between these two remarkable women there grew an ultimately deadly rivalry that neither fully wanted or was capable of averting. Their relationship is the spine of this brilliant, dual biography. Though they ruled 500 years ago, Dunn's re-creation of them is a stunning achievement of scholarship and perception, rendering them as vital, immediate and irresistible as if they strode across the world stage still.

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