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Now *that's* magic!
on 9 January 2007
It would be very difficult to write a dull biography of John Dee. He was perhaps the archetypal Renaissance man; astronomer, astrologer, explorer and mathematician, he was a friend of Elizabeth I but died in poverty, reviled for his spiritualism.
Based on Dee's private diaries, Woolley's biography is filled with fascinating detail, not only of his experiments, but of Elizabethan court life and society. Thorough without being tedious, this is always eminently readable. And - hurrah! - it has proper citations, an extensive bibliography and a decent index, thus proving once and for all that this kind of slightly populist history does not have to abandon all proper academic convention.
If I have one misgiving, it's that the central, apparently driving force for much of Dee's life, his relationship with Edward Kelly, is under-analysed. Certainly, the facts about Kelly are few enough; but aside from a single, speculative mention of some passing evidence for Kelly's being an apostate priest, no consideration is given to his origins. More importantly, there is little comment on the true nature of the spiritual 'actions' undertaken by the two men. Did Kelly genuinely believe in his visions? And what was his hold on Dee, that he could pursuade him to abandon his morals so far as to exchange wives?
This aside, the book is excellent. In the twenty-first century, we have forgotten that the separation between science and magic is a very recent thing. Woolley takes us straight into the mind of a man for whom they were identical. Recommended.