BOOKS CHECKED OUT | By JANET CLAPP
What would it be like to be a queen? Here are some books that tell the inside story of female sovereigns.
‘Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great’
by Eva Stachniak
On the morning of November 5, 1796, Catherine experiences pain and paralysis. For the next thirty-six hours she remains trapped within her failing body while her mind recalls snippets of her life, starting when she was a princess from Anhalt-Zerbst named Sophie. She gains power, becoming Empress of Russia. “Her life has just been transformed in ways she cannot quite fathom. What she has desired so long is hers, miraculously, a gift and a burden. Laughter breaks her open, releases what has been pulling tight at her insides. Holding fear, darkness, and the raucous exhilaration of victory.” Through the years, Catherine collects lovers, and never lets down her guard. To her, all of life is a power play, as she rules the Russian empire: “A game of chess is a game of choices. Sacrifice a pawn to capture a knight. Assess each position, predict the next few moves, watch out for incongruities. Or let your opponent cheat and think himself invincible.” For more about Catherine the Great, read Stachniak’s “The Winter Palace,” showing the life of Sophie through the eyes of her servant and friend.
‘Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette’
by Sena Jeter Naslund
In 1770 the young Austrian Maria Antonia marries the French Dauphin Louis Auguste. “I am like a pastry, and the dress is smoothed around me like fondant. It is a wonder to touch. The threads of the brocade serve to make the texture more interesting to the fingertips as well as to the eye; the fabric is a maze of intricacy.” Marie Antoinette leads a pampered life at court, where she is surrounded by friends and spends her time acting in plays, being painted, and making music. The innocent girl grows into a cossetted woman who feels maligned and misunderstood by others. “I learn that these women are armed … and that it is myself whom they blame for the financial crises, for the famine last winter, for the fact that the weather was colder than in any year of the last seventy-five. It is I, and not the American War, who have emptied the treasury, and I who have enacted the thousands of pornographic deeds depicted in the pamphlets, and I, most heinously of all, who have seduced the King into activities that have left the people destitute. Not even I hold myself blameless, but I am not a harpy and I have lived the life dealt to me with as much kindness as I could.” For a fictional journal written by the queen, check out “The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette” by Carolly Erickson.
‘The Boleyn Inheritance’
by Philippa Gregory
Told from three perspectives, this is the story of Jane Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. Jane, sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn, constantly schemes to maintain her place at the court of King Henry VIII. “My dream is that one day this luck will change. I will see a messenger…to summon me back to court, to tell me that there is work for me to do again: a queen to serve, secrets to whisper, plots to hatch, the unending double-dealing life of a courtier….” German-speaking Anne of Cleves marries King Henry VIII after the death of his third wife. “We are two women who have recognized that we cannot control the world. We are players in this game, but we do not choose our own moves. The men will play us for their own desires. All we can do is try to survive whatever happens next.” Katherine “Kitty” Howard is a pretty and flighty flirt who catches the eye of the king while serving as Anne’s lady-in-waiting. “But I am afraid that this is not going to be a very merry court for me, and what is the point of a court at all if it is not merry with dancing and flirtation? Indeed, what is the point of anyone being a young queen at all if she is not going to be merry and vain and silly?” This book is also available as an audiobook on compact disc, performed remarkably well by three narrators. If you like this author, she has numerous other novels about royals.
‘The Memoirs of Cleopatra’
by Margaret George
This is a fictional recounting of Cleopatra’s life, depicting in detail the world of ancient Rome and Egypt. It begins in girlhood. “Was it then I felt — or discovered — the strange power I have in personal encounters? I do not do anything extraordinary, I say no special words, but I seem to have the ability to win people to my side, to disarm them. I do not know how.” Through difficult times she counts on Isis. “The statue of the goddess seemed to waver in the light. … I wish to be like you, I thought. I must be strong as well as compassionate.” And she is strong, “Because I am the Queen. And my will is stronger…. I will do what I must, until the last moment.” George has written other tomes about historic personages, including Helen of Troy, Mary Magdelene, and Henry VIII.
For those who enjoy reading about British royalty in history, check out the prolific Alison Weir. In addition to many biographies, including “Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” she has written novels about Lady Jane Grey and others; her latest is “The Marriage Game” about Elizabeth I.
The books above, and many others about royal figures, can be found at the Rutland Free Library. Who is your favorite queen?
Janet Clapp is an adult services librarian at Rutland Free Library.