A BookLikes home companion to LitReactor.com, an online haven for readers and writers.
Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories From History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, an American freelance journalist based in London.
A collection of short biographies of real-life princesses whose lives and stories undermine the popular notions of what it means to be a princess.
Dames of Thrones: Real Princesses of History
McRobbie's often flippant tone will be appreciated by those who enjoy other irreverent works of non-fiction, or books by Chuck Klosterman and David Sedaris (although it isn't quite as smart as those works).
My favorite princess was Olga of Kiev, who slaughtered the Derevlian people after they murdered her husband, and was later sainted by the Orthodox church.
It would be a blast to watch Milla Jovavich beguile then slay her enemies, before tricking her way out of a marriage to Constantine VII.
The stories in this book span centuries and continents. Would I have loved to be a rich German princess in the 1980's? Absolutely. Would I have wanted to be an insane royal locked in a convent during the Middle Ages? Err.... not so much.
And when she was given a diamond-studded miniature portrait of her betrothed, she dashed it against the wall, screaming, "I will not marry the pig snout!"
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie's introduction to this book lays out her vision quite clearly. She discusses her own concern with the contemporary "Princess Industrial Complex" and its undue influence on pre-tween girls in Western culture. "Perhaps the best way to make sure that the fairy tale doesn't become the expectation," she writes, "is to talk about real princesses and to stop turning their lives into fairy tales." But although McRobbie is writing in reaction to this pre-tween phenomenon, the book often includes historical details that may not be appropriate for readers of that age. For example, at one point, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are described as "lovers of the everything-but-actual-sex sort," and another short section discusses incest among royal families. Additionally, McRobbie's casual and fun style occasionally makes references which may be outside of a pre-tween's cultural awareness and context. When Napoleon gives Pauline Bonaparte the title "Organizer of Entertainments on the Island of Elba" McRobbie compares it to "the nineteenth-century equivalent of 'Cruise Director of the Loveboat.'"
Despite being a book written about women often overcoming or being overcome by the gender expectations of their time, McRobbie's book will not sit well with all feminist readers, as she uses both the words "bitch" and "slut" at least once in ways which support the negative, sex-specific connotations both words carry. At one point, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel is described as not being "storybook beautiful but she certainly wasn't run-away-and-get-drunk ugly."
But these concerns aside, Princesses Behaving Badly is a very fun read. McRobbie's tone is casual and friendly, and although at times it veers into downright corniness, McRobbie is aware that her jokes aren't always the most polished. For example, when discussing Renaissance politics in Italy, she writes, "Renaissance politics were as tangled as a bowl of pasta (sorry)," and her apologetic acknowledgement turned this reader's groan into a laugh. McRobbie does an excellent job of including quotes from original sources as well, which help to place the princesses' actions within their individual historical contexts. For example, Roman chronicler Cassius Dio describes Boudicca as "possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women."
More than anything though, it is the diverse and wide-ranging collection of stories that McRobbie has curated that make this book succeed. It is a romp through history, focusing on fascinating women, many of whom the reader may have never heard. While neither a serious history nor a concentrated feminist effort, Princesses Behaving Badly will attract and enthrall a wide variety of readers. Additionally, the quality of the physical book itself is excellent and makes the experience of reading it an absolute pleasure.