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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Title: Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings
Author: Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
Genre: nonfiction, history
Series: N/A
Pages: 288
Publication: November 19, 2013
Source: Publisher via Booklikes giveaway
Rating: 4/5

You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers minibiographies of all these princesses and dozens more. It’s a fascinating read for history buffs, feminists, and anyone seeking a different kind of bedtime story.

Reviewed by Danielle

An absolutely fascinating collection of “royal” women, though the title is a serious misnomer. This book actually collects empresses, khans, ranis, commoners posing as royals, and yes, some princesses. Many of them didn’t behave badly, just differently from the cultural norms of the time, though some were certainly wicked, (there are sections for usurpers and schemers, along with the floozies, partiers, madwomen, warriors, and survivors.) Sections are arranged chronologically, with each chapter serving as a mini biography of an individual woman who fits the section header.

Especially in the first chapters, the book features a lot of lesser known stories, mostly centered around women of color. This was extremely exciting, though a little concerning that there weren’t many modern examples. My favorite was Empress Wu and the effects of the patriarchy and revisionist history on her legacy. (In a similar vein, I also enjoyed the dissection of Lucrezia Borgia as a victim of the patriarchy and not the “slutty poisoner” her family’s enemies have tried to paint her as.) Additionally, Malinche and Sarah Winnemucca’s stories are heartbreaking and worryingly similar, despite being “traitors” to their indigenous peoples more than 300 years apart.

Some of the stories are little more than retellings of folktales, owed to the lack of real information on the women, while others are richly detailed and studied. I wish my advanced copy had included the bibliography, because I’d really love to see the research that went into the assertion that Juana la Loca was actually quite sane. (Another victim of men’s desire to control her and her lands.)

The fake princesses were something I was only vaguely aware of, which made for great fun to study. I’m just old enough to remember the DNA test that proved Franziska Schanzkowska was not the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Her real story is far more interesting and sad than the Don Bluth movie makes it sound. Princess Caraboo was funny in an absurd, people-believed-this? kind of way, though of course it’s also sad that she felt the need to go to such lengths for a place to stay. The Persian mummy is horrifying and happened in entirely too modern an era.

Written in a conversational tone, the book is extremely readable and a lot of fun, but it’s obvious that the author doesn’t want to trade in idle gossip. There are no stories of Empresses and their horses, no perpetuating women bathing in blood, (though Elisabeth of Austria may have worn veal,) and it’s clear she doesn’t believe rumors of incest or witchcraft in the Tudor courts. Frankly, it’s the most balanced of the “royal scandals” genre that I’ve encountered.

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