Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History – without the Fairy Tale Endings is a fun, juicy non-fiction book about princesses who weren’t “afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce, or murder anyone who got in her way”. If you want deep insight, you’re not going to get much of it here. But if you want a light, informative book about some fascinating women, then this is the book for you!
This is a book about unconventional princesses. They are listed in the following chapters: Warriors, Usurpers, Schemers, Survivors, Partiers, Floozies, and Madwomen. There are princesses (the word is sometimes loosely used) from ancient Scandinavia, from China, from Africa (Egypt and Ndongo), from India and from South America, and from all over Europe. There are princesses locked in towers and princesses who commission naked statues of themselves for public display and princesses who turn pirate instead of marrying (I’m also fond of the princess who refused to marry a man unless he could defeat her in a wrestling competition). There are imposter princesses and some princesses who quit the princess gig for love.
This is a great book if you’re trapped in a particular vision of what women would do or could do at any given historical period in time. It’s also a great antidote to thinking of “civilization” as a Western European thing, for good and for bad. I appreciated learning about the women from royal families outside of Europe who ruled vast empires.
The only thing I disliked about this book was that the tone veered from congratulatory to condescending all over the place. I honestly could not tell whether the author admired the more sexually active princesses for seizing the day (and other things) or whether the author thought their sexual activities were a sign of bad morals.
I also thought there was an astounding lack of sympathy for people who had lovers of the same gender. In women, gender fluidity and/or attraction to women seemed viewed as an eccentricity. In men, gayness seemed to be portrayed as a sign of weakness and simultaneously a threat to the princesses. There was no in-depth analysis of anyone’s actions. The book is basically a gossip magazine, and it takes the same gleeful, half envious, half judgemental tone towards its subjects’ lives that gossip magazines do towards the lives of celebrities, when those lives involve sexual adventure.
As the title suggests, some of these stories are inspiring and kick-ass, but many are terribly sad. As thrilling as it is to read about the 5th century Scandinavian princess who became a pirate, most women struggled to maintain any control over their own lives and many of these women were unsuccessful. Some ended up imprisoned; others died in poverty or died very young of disease or childbirth. As romance readers, we love a happy ending, and there are some here, but there’s a lot of terrible tragedy as well.
I have one other complaint about the book – why no pictures? I’m assuming cost was an issue but oh, how I longed for better illustrations than the woodcuts that adorn the start of each new chapter! Most of these women had portraits made of them, and many were born recently enough that there are photos of them. Perhaps this book will be a big enough hit that it will be reprinted with illustrations – I hope so!