Monday, September 5, 2016

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History — Without the Fairy-Tale Endings

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Rating: 2 Stars

I originally rated this book 3 stars, but time away from it has given me a better perspective and I am debating between 1 and 2 stars even. Really, this book was not very good. Perhaps I felt inclined to give it the original 3 stars because within the first chapter there was a subsection about fierce queens from Antiquity and a page devoted to Boudicca. I would have liked to see a blurb about Eleanor of Aquitaine (though she did not live during Antiquity, I know), because she certainly bucked tradition in her life time with the way she took control of her life to end her first marriage and begin her second within weeks of returning home to Aquitaine (and most likely, she had been planning it long before).

But the more I thought about it, and looked back over the few notes I took while reading, I had to accept the fact that while parts of the book were entertaining, by and large the princesses were never really made to feel like real people. The author relied a lot on the myths surrounding these women and did not do a decent enough job separating the two. I guess I would have been more willing to rate the book higher had the two been more clearly divided. Perhaps even presenting the myths first and then following up with what was true in the myth, why the myth grew to overtake the facts we do know, etc. But there was none of that and so the author does herself a disservice, and her readers as well.

Immediately in the introduction, I had some misgivings about the book. Even in the table of contents, the author referred to Isabella of France (wife of Edward II, more on these two in a minute) as a she-wolf. It was at that point I already expected much of the book to be a regurgitation of gossip and nonsense. She-wolf was not a compliment at that time, and using it now without explanation is no better.

While still in the introduction, I found it kind of ridiculous that the author would call her book 'Princesses Behaving Badly', and then rant against Disney Princesses and these cultural and gender norms that exist in society now. Why would these princesses in the book be considered to be 'behaving badly' then, unless the expectation of the behavior was the opposite, and more Disney-like? The message there is already mixed, and nothing is ever done to clarify it.

Back to Isabella and Edward II. Edward was not the king his father and grandfather were, nor his son Edward III would become. I have always felt a bit bad for him, as he enjoyed activities that were considered beneath a king, but he made his own problems as well when he let his favorites sway his opinion and policy. Piers Gaveston was a terrible influence on Edward and there will be speculation until the end of time about whether or not Edward was gay and Piers was his lover. What matters in that bit of information is that Edward never bothered to at least pretend that Isabella mattered, and from their wedding day on it was clear she was of no importance to him - considering the fact that he gave the jewels she'd brought with her to Gaveston, and Gaveston sat with Edward at the coronation, in what should have been Isabella's place.

This quote was one of a few that really sealed the deal for me on how untrustworthy the book is:

"When Gaveston was around, Edward was worse than useless, barely able to hold a conversation, much less govern. When Gaveston wasn't around, Edward was a wreck" (page 79).

This seems a bit...sensational, don't you think? I was interested to read the chapter on Isabella, but it ended up just being a rehashing of rumors and gossip. In looking at the bibliography for this chapter, I found that the author only used one book, Helen Castor's 'She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth'. That in itself is kind of shady, to use only one source. and Castor's book is definitely not sensational and gossipy. I mean, it has its moments, but it was still well-researched and I liked it. Isabella's behavior was more then justified, by our standards today anyway. As far as we can ever really know, Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer took power and eventually Edward II died in captivity under dubious circumstances. At the time her behavior was considered unacceptable, and that is why once their son, Edward III came to power, he had Mortimer executed and Isabella basically under house arrest for the rest of her life.

Basically, the book started out decent, but even after the rough introduction I had concerns. By page 55 when the author referred to Tuthmosis III as 'T-III', I just could not take her seriously. There were some solid stories but over all this is more entertainment than academic. That is not a bad thing necessarily, but it is problematic when myths are presented as fact. If there was not enough factual information about someone available to us today, then perhaps that is a sign that they should not be the subject of a book.

Take it or leave it, but keep in mind its shortcomings.

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