Friday, October 4, 2013

Book Club Friday: Princesses Behaving Badly

Happy Friday! This week went really fast (time flies when you're learning how to work your husband's hemodialysis machine), and now it's time for Book Club Friday once again.

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale EndingsPrincesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disney princesses, these women are not. But if you've ever wanted to know what a princess's life is REALLY like, without the singing crustaceans, this may be the book for you.

Does anyone else remember Uppity Women of Medieval Times and some of the other titles that Vicki León and some others* used to write for Conari Press (now part of Red Wheel/Weiser)? There was a whole series in the 1990s that sought to fight the erasure of herstory by bringing to light some of the lesser-known, but fascinating, women in history. This book is like a mini-course in that.

Like the Uppity Women series (its foremother), this book divides the women into categories, such as Warriors, Partiers, and Madwomen, rather than proceeding in strict chronological order. It focuses mainly on European history - the Germano-British House of Hanover seems to be a favorite subject - but is just multicultural enough to pass the sniff test.

Some of the women you'll find between the pages include:

- Pingyang (7th century China)
- Boudicca (1st century Britain)
- Durgavati (16th century India)
- Hatshepsut (ca. 1500 BCE Egypt)
- Njinga of Ndongo (17th century West Africa - what is now Angola)
- Roxolana (16th century Ottoman Empire)
- La Malinche (16th century Mexico)
- Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute people, 1844-1891)
- Margaret Windsor (1930-2002, sister of Elizabeth II of England)

The writing style is very informal, which some reviewers have disliked (one compared it to the tone of a gossip magazine), and I have to say, I see their point. I think what bothered me the most was that some of the passages about allegedly promiscuous princesses took on what I felt was too judgmental a tone. (To be fair, Napoleon and some of the Hanover kings get a little slut-shamed, too, so it isn't a particularly gender-biased strain of judgment.)

If you can forgive a narrative whose voice can, at times, be a bit intrusive, and you're a young person considering a history or women's studies major, or you're fascinated with history as a hobby, or you're a not-necessarily-younger person who's fascinated with royalty in general or who wants to brush up on some of the lesser-known women in political history, I recommend this book to you as a good jumping-on point. If you find a favorite, I'm sure you'll go on to research her in more depth.

Another complaint I noticed in briefly skimming over some previous reviews was that not all the women in the book are, strictly speaking, princesses. Some of them are impostors, or from cultures without a formalized system of royal titles, and some of them (especially in the early chapters) are legendary figures who may not have basis in historical fact. This part didn't particularly bother me; if Rodriguez McRobbie had stuck to a very formal definition of princesshood, the book would almost certainly have been more Eurocentric and less interesting.

I'm fairly happy with her selections, and with the depth of information she got into with most of them. I do think we need (frequent) reminders that history was never a male-only affair, so I appreciate the efforts of books such as these. I would buy it for my nieces, but I'd also try to get them to retain it as just one part of a larger women's history bookshelf.

I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Amazon Vine Program at no charge in exchange for this review. I was not otherwise compensated for this review, which is my own honest opinion.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Next Amazon Vine picks to read by next month:

*Including Autumn Stephens, whose latest book is Feisty First Ladies, available from Cleis Press. I saw it in the Viva Editions catalog when Cleis Press sent me a copy of Mitzi Szereto's The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray. - Note noted on November 5, 2013.

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Belle Vierge said...

That sounds awesome! I majored in history (and French), and I concentrated in WGS. This book sounds pretty perfect for me. I've added it to my to-read list on goodreads!

Erin O'Riordan said...

WGS is women's/gender studies, right? Sounds like a great major. I majored in psychology with a children and family concentration (believe it or not), but WS was my minor.

Shoshanah said...

I've been really excited about this book since I heard about it. And since I consider myself a "younger person who's fascinated with royalty in general," I think I'll really enjoy it. Your review just makes me even more excited to get to this!

And I can't wait to hear what you think of Fangirl. I keep her such positive reviews of it.

Erin O'Riordan said...

Me too - I hope it lives up to the hype!