Book Review: Three Queenly Biographies

For my first attempt at reviewing history, I’ve combined three recent reviews of historical biographies all focusing upon European queens: Mary, Queen of Scots; the medieval queens of England; and Marie Antoinette. Hope you enjoy!

historical women
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Mary, Queen of Scots: and the Murder of Lord Darnley

I always enjoy reading Alison Weir’s biographies of historical figures. Although at times hindered by her repetitive citations of sources and distracting detail, her portrait of much-wronged monarch Mary, Queen of Scots is engaging, convincing and sympathetic.  Weir’s biography painstakingly covers the period both before and after her husband Lord Darnley’s murder – a shocking incident for which Mary was largely blamed – and investigates the incredibly contested notion of Mary’s complicity in the explosion which rocked Edinburgh in February 1567. Although I’m not informed enough to judge the accuracy of Weir’s interpretation, her narrative is meticulous and thought-provoking, a historical murder mystery and an exploration of sixteenth-century sexist attitudes all in one. Just like Weir herself, I was thoroughly converted to Team Mary after reading account after account of her sufferings and her seemingly obvious innocence (although her political decisions were often incredibly faulty), and there can be no doubt that Mary, like so many women of her time, was a victim of a patriarchal society that deemed her unnecessary.

From left to right: 1559; Mary with Darnley

She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

Helen Castor’s biography of four politically astute and ferocious English queens is consistently entertaining and fascinating. Focusing upon the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou – in addition to a quick portrait of Mary I and Elizabeth I and the issues surrounding legitimate queenship – Castor renders potentially confusing and repetitive material clearly and concisely. In such turbulent and shockingly violent times, these remarkably strong women succeeded through their roles as wives and mothers in an extremely misogynist period. Castor’s portrayal never feels lacklustre or wearying – a pitfall into which historical biographers often fall, with endless political manoeuvres to recount – and her grip and reasoning of such complex politics is thoroughly impressive, especially considering the dearth of sources. Demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of these queens, Castor is eloquent in her interrogation into medieval expectations of women, and rightly shows that Elizabeth I was not the first woman to take England by storm.

From left to right: Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou

Marie Antoinette: the Journey

Antonia Fraser’s fantastic biography of doomed French queen Marie Antoinette first came to my attention after learning that it inspired one of my favourite films, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The queen has often been accused as instigating the French Revolution through her turbulent excesses, but Fraser’s impeccable historical research and accessible, fluent account demonstrates the opposite: although frivolous and pleasure-seeking (in a time when even the most pious of courtiers spent inordinate sums on ridiculous things), she was above all compassionate, maternal and brave. The biography is sympathetic but critical, spanning from her childhood as an Austrian archduchess at the court of the formidable Maria Theresa to her final imprisonment in 1793 at the hands of the French revolutionaries. Fraser manages the often difficult task of including perceptive commentary on political context without inadvertently excluding Marie Antoinette’s own personal life and relationships, although in this she is aided by a veritable wealth of source material. Definitely one of the best historical biographies I’ve ever read, and I’m so keen to read more of Fraser’s work.

From left to right: c.1767-8; 1778; 1783

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